Teaching Ideas

Some ideas for using technology in the classroom from a homeschooler, a teacher, and a software engineer.

Location: New Hampshire, United States

November 28, 2005

Blogging to Start Writing

(This is how I offered students in my online composition class the opportunity to keep a blog for credit.)

Keeping a Blog


I like to recommend journaling, or keeping a diary, as an approach to getting comfortable with writing. Journaling makes writing a habit. And once you're into the habit of turning nothing into a paragraph or a page of writing every day, it's much easier to sit down at a blank screen and start writing a college assignment, a business memo, or the next great novel.

One of best things about journaling is that it doesn't put any pressure on you. If you're keeping a diary for yourself, you don't have to worry about what anybody else will think.

On the other hand, one of the weaknesses of a private journal is that we don't all feel like keeping diaries for ourselves. I feel funny writing down something that nobody else will ever read, and that I might never read again. I'm not always interested in what I have to say.

That's why I really like the Internet blog (short for “web log”). It's basically a diary that you publish to the Internet. You can write (“post”) a new entry as often as you like—hourly, weekly, or whenever. I think the blog has great potential to help us write for two reasons:

  1. Anyone can see what you write, so you're not really writing just for yourself. When you set up a blog, you get your own Internet address. (An Internet address is also called a “URL,” something like www.MyDiary.blogspot.com.) Anybody in the world can bump into your writing by typing your URL into her browser. Anybody might randomly stumble onto your blog. You can share your address with friends, of course, or you can keep it a secret. But it's always possible that someone will see what you write, so you tend to write as if someone else is there.

  2. Knowing someone else might be reading helps me fight Problem #2: it encourages me to Think about Every Word.

  3. Your blog can be anonymous. Since my name isn't going onto my posts, I can be a bit reckless about my writing. I have the freedom of keeping a diary just for myself—I don't have to worry about what anyone else thinks. This helps me fight Problem #1, by Just Doing It.

Class Credit

I would like to encourage students in ENG101 to try blogging. If you start a blog, I'll offer 1 “Optional Exercise” point for every entry—with a few requirements. The entries must be made on separate days (no more than 1 point per day), and the entries must be at least a paragraph long. (Page 26 of our Wyrick text recommends writing a half-page at least three times a week, but I'll leave the frequency up to you.) All you have to do to receive credit is submit your blog's URL into the Assignment Drop Box before the due date, along with the number of points you hope to earn (the maximum is 20).

I realize that you're giving up your blog's anonymity by sharing the URL with me, but I can't think of a way to preserve anonymity and award class credit at the same time.

(Keeping a blog is optional. If you're not interested in blogging, you will have a chance to earn some or all of the 20 Optional Exercise points by doing exercises out of the textbook and other assignments. But if you're curious about blogging, please give it a try.)


Starting a blog can be intimidating, but there are several sites where you can sign up for free. Most of these have tools that walk you through the process of setting up your own blog. Here are two, but you can find others on the Internet:

Blogger / Blogspot.com. I've used this one and found it pretty straightforward, so this is the site I recommend. Look at the tour here: http://www.blogger.com/tour_start.

LiveJournal. This is a popular, free blog site with features to let you find other blogs by people with similar interests: www.livejournal.com.

Here's an encyclopedia entry with more background on blogging:


And here is a popular blogger's history of blogging:


If you have any questions or advice about blogging, please post in the Questions from Students or Notes discussion groups on WebCT.


I'm a little afraid to encourage blogging, because I'm not an expert in it myself. Setting up a blog doesn't require a Computer Science degree, but all these blogging sites assume some familiarity with the Internet. Since the sites let anybody post pretty much anything, you can expect to find offensive content if you browse around them enough. If you look at somebody else's blog, you should probably assume that you're at the same risk for viruses or spyware as you would be when looking at any unfamiliar website. Please don't hold me responsible for anything you bump into!

On the other hand, blogging is kind of new, it's fun, and I hope it's a great way to practice journaling.

© 2005, Michael Hardt

November 10, 2005

Writing and Talking

An Approach to Composition
(This is the first of a series of articles I presented to online students of writing at Kennebec Valley Community College. Observing that students are generally much more comfortable speaking than writing, and seeing that students too often write like they speak, I constructed the entire composition course around a comparison between writing and talking.)
I always seem to run into the same two problems with my own writing, and I notice my students running into these problems, too. They are:
Problem #1: I Can't Get StartedProblem #2: My Writing Stinks
When I sit down to write, whether it's an email, a school assignment, or a letter to my spouse, I have a hard time starting. There's always a moment of paralysis when I start, and I'm just not sure how to go on.

Talking doesn't feel like writing. I'm not afraid to start talking, possibly because I can watch people's reactions and smooth things over if I say something dumb. Writing feels like I should know exactly what I want to say before I start. And that makes it almost impossible for me to start writing at all.
I—and I think most people—write like we talk. My thoughts are a bit jumbled, and the words come out that way.

In talking, that's not such a critical problem. The person I'm talking to might nod her head to show she understands, or she might say, “Yeah, I know,” or she might look perplexed, or she might interrupt me with a question. Since we're both interacting with each other, we can sort out what I'm trying to say. I can rephrase my ideas on the fly until they make sense.

But in writing, my jumbled thoughts create a huge problem! I can't get any facial cues or verbal feedback. I'm typically not around when somebody reads my writing, so I don't get to clarify the fuzzy bits or to make it seem logical. In writing, I get only one try: if it doesn't make sense to the reader the first time, it probably never will.
It gets worse. The solutions for Problem #1 and Problem #2 are contradictory. Let me explain.
Solution #1: Just Do It!Solution #2: Think About Every Word
Problem #1 is that I can't start writing. How do I solve this problem? The simple answer is from that old Nike ad campaign: “Just do it.” Somehow I just have to get started.

I tell myself, “Don't worry about saying something dumb.” “Don't worry if you say everything in the wrong order.” “If you're not sure how to spell 'accommodate' (Or is it 'accomodate'? 'Accommadate'?), just go ahead and keep writing.” Because I know that if I get hung up on every little problem, I will never write any actual words.

But this solution (“Just do it”) makes Problem #2 even worse. If I “just write,” then everything will be out of order and disconnected and random and jumbled—just like it comes out of my brain.
Problem #2 is that my writing stinks. The solution for Problem #2 is to think before I write.

I tell myself, “Plan everything carefully.” “Make an outline to keep things in order.” “Find exactly the right word before you write it, and look words you're not sure about.”

And this solution (“Think about every word”) makes Problem #1 even worse. Trying to think through everything in advance makes writing impossible. My brain isn't big enough to plan my whole document in advance, and I get so lost in the planning that I never actually my first word.
I've never found a perfect solution to these two problems. (If you find one, please share it!) The best answer I've come up with is to handle both problems separately. First I solve Problem #1, and then I work on Problem #2.
First . . . Just Do It!Then . . . Think About Every Word
One way writing is easier than talking is that you have as much time as you want without bothering anybody. I can write, and write, and write, and while I'm doing it, I'm not boring anybody to death. I can stop and look out the window, and then write some more. A new idea can pop into my head, and I can write it down.

If I talked that way, whoever I was talking to would lose patience in a hurry. He wouldn't be interested in my rambling on and on. He wouldn't want me to change the subject every time a new thought occurred to me.

But when I write, I'm all alone. I can take all the time I want, let my thoughts wander, and relax.
Another way writing is easier than talking is that I can change things. We've all had moments when we have said something stupid or hurtful. And it's an awful feeling to see somebody's face change while you're talking and realize that you've just made a bit of an idiot out of yourself, or maybe worse, that you have insulted this person. In conversation I feel like I say the wrong things frequently—so much that I actually have a problem with shyness. I'm shy because I'm afraid that I'll say something to make people mad at me or to make them laugh at me.

When I write, I can fix my mistakes. I write stupid things all the time. Disorganized things. Irrelevant things. Illogical things. Mean things. But nobody else has to see them, because unless I'm in a terrific hurry, I can look back at what I've written, and I can take as much time as I need to fix it: to organize it, to delete what's irrelevant, to clarify what's illogical, and to change what might be insulting.
I always try to remind myself that writing and talking aren't quite the same. My writing has to be better than my talking, really, because I won't be around to clear anything up when somebody reads it.

But the good news is that nobody's looking when I write, so I don't have to be afraid to “just do it.” And even if my writing stinks the first time, I have the luxury of fixing it before anybody else sees it.

Some of the Prewriting exercises that we've read about in our book are designed to help us solve Problem #1. The “Pump-Primer techniques” from chapter 1 (listing, freewriting, sketching, etc.) all help us to get words on paper: cluttered, unpolished, and chaotic. Journal Writing (we read about it in Wyrick, pages 25-28) helps us get into the habit of putting words on paper. Like anything, writing gets a lot easier once it's a habit. (And the Internet blog is a great approach to journal writing—more on that later.)

Just as I try to solve Problem #1 first in my own writing, I decided to start this class by attacking Problem #1: “I Can't Get Started.” We can think about every word afterwards. For the first couple of weeks, let's just do it.

June 21, 2005

Teaching with Wikipedia

What’s Wikipedia?

Wikipedia shouldn’t work. How could a reliable Internet encyclopedia be created, expanded, and maintained by unqualified volunteers?

If you’re unfamiliar with Wikipedia, have a peek at it here: Wikipedia. At first glance, it’s a free, online encyclopedia. Search almost any term you could find in World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica, and there it is. Spend a little time with it, and you’ll realize that Wikipedia’s actually more comprehensive than Britannica, offering more than four times as many articles. Look at Brittanica online, and you’ll see another difference: after a trial period, Britannica costs 11.95 per month. Wikipedia is free.

Wikipedia had already become one of my regular resources when I discovered its real secret: anyone can add or edit any entry. Go ahead. Look at a topic with which you’re familiar, click the “Edit This Page” button, and change the entry. It’s that simple.

The whole encyclopedia, in fact, is just a collection of voluntary contributions. By anyone. No credentials required. It’s the equivalent of a library’s leaving an open notebook with these instructions: “If you know about something, please write it down.” If I see a mistake in Wikipedia, I can fix it. If I see an omission, I can fill in the gap.

Discovering the nature of Wikipedia soon brought out the cynic in me. Sometimes people believe themselves to be experts in an area, even if they aren’t. Some people have political axes to grind. Some might replace a meaningful entry with an offensive slur, just for kicks.

In fact, Wikipedia has all these problems, but none of them are insurmountable. People interested in an entry can elect to receive an automatic notification whenever anyone else edits that entry. Each time an arrogant pup posts some bad information about, say, high-speed trains, a more knowledgeable person is hot on his heels to correct the entry. Political topics are heavily debated (the entry for “abortion” has been revised more than 500 times in the past month), but Wikipedia warns readers with a label: “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” Wikipedia even seems to stand up well against vandalism. When a prankster adds a line to Henry David Thoreau’s entry claiming that he was Queen Elizabeth’s lover, a more serious scholar promptly reverts the change. In practice, the prankster seems to lose patience before the historian, and the valid entry stands.

Wikipedia for Composition Students

Once I was over my initial awe of Wikipedia, my mind turned to how it might be used as an educational tool.

Students can, and should, contribute to it. Wikipedia is still young, and it has room for thousands (millions?) of new topics. It has an entry on IPods, but doesn’t yet have one on MP3 radio recorders. It has an entry for baseball gloves, but no separate entry for first baseman’s mitts. It contains Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but not Donne’s Meditation XVII. It begs for expansion.

This points to an assignment in conjunction with research. A student who does a short research paper on the Washington Monument might well be able to add a line or two to its Wikipedia entry. A student who chooses a more esoteric topic, such as the coiling of ropes in eighteenth-century whaleboats, might well be able to add a whole new entry. If a student isn’t sure what to research, she might explore Wikipedia’s thousands of “stub” entries: topics that someone thinks ought to be represented, but which no one has written about as yet. (If you find something missing from Wikipedia, you can create a “stub” entry yourself.)

What’s wonderful about encouraging students to contribute to Wikipedia is that it offers an accessible, respected, worldwide, lasting forum for student publication. If a student’s contribution is worthwhile, it will likely stick, and she may browse back to it years hence, after thousands of people around the world have read it. Where else can a student’s writing have this sort of exposure?

If a student’s contribution is weak, of course, it is likely to be revised, deleted, or replaced in short order. That too would be a learning experience. I would like to see students make their contributions to Wikipedia fairly early in the term, so they could repeatedly look back at the topic and see firsthand what sorts of emendations occur. They could, in fact, engage in the editing process themselves, revising their own submissions as they think of improvements, and debating redactions they think inappropriate. Wikipedia not only gives students a chance to publish-it gives them a chance to edit and be edited.

Wikipedia for Teachers

In the Internet age, teachers are better able than ever to share ideas with each other. Several Wikipedia-like web pages for instructors have recently surfaced. These are repositories where anyone can post a lesson plan or a teaching strategy, and anyone else can enhance or edit it. Like Wikipedia, these web pages are fully searchable.

This, for example, is an existing resource, although it currently lacks the content and organized presentation of Wikipedia. Here is a proposal to start a site for teachers very similar to Wikipedia.

I see two problems with these pedagogic websites. One is a sort of balkanization: there are too many similar sites and no single, authoritative repository of teaching ideas. The other problem is that the total collection of ideas is still too small: not enough teachers have posted their strategies online. But Wikipedia has come a long way in four years, and I’ll be surprised if one day soon a teacher who needs to try a different approach or teach a new topic doesn’t turn first to an online resource.

April 12, 2005

Tracking Grammatical Errors with a Database


While teaching freshman writing at St. Anselm College, I saw common grammatical errors again and again. Writing detailed feedback was time-consuming and tedious, but I was aware that students would be unlikely to overcome these problems on their own if I simply circled them in red. Instead I created a Windows program to help me mark the students’ papers.

How It Worked

Suppose a student submitted a draft of an essay. The essay contained a sentence with bad subject-verb agreement followed by a paragraph with an interesting idea that would have been stronger if it were supported with an example:

. . . Her list of reasons do not include the most important one: that she is bored.

She also writes about how her brother wants to die. Actually I think she is the one who has an obsession with death. Even when she doesn’t talk about it directly, some of the words she uses are morbid and dark.

On the student’s paper, I marked the sentence and paragraph with a “1” and a “2.”

In my computer program, I called up Subject-Verb Agreement, Number from my list of common errors and labeled it with a “1.” I checked Explanation and Example, and my program pulled up a description of subject-verb agreement. I might also have checked Exercise, in which case my program would have pulled up a workbook-style exercise on-screen.

I wanted to leave personal feedback for the paragraph, so I typed a short suggestion and labeled it “2.”

I printed out my feedback and stapled it onto the student’s essay. Here’s what the student saw:

1. Subject-Verb Agreement, Number
The subject of a sentence has to match its verb in number. That’s why we say things like “She does” but not “They does,” or “We have” but not “We has.”

Be careful of words that come between the real subject and the verb. In the sentence below, the real subject is “Dr. Jones,” so you have to use “was giving,” not “were giving”:

Dr. Jones, together with other scientists and environmental activists, was giving a press conference.

For details, see the Riverside Handbook, page 363.

2. This “obsession with death” is an interesting idea. You’ll make a stronger case, though, if you can quote one or two examples from the text to back it up. In your next revision, please show me a couple of the author’s sentences that contain “morbid” or “dark” language.

Objectives and Benefits

  • The computer program saved me time; this enabled me to assign more papers over the course of the term, allowing the students more practice in revision.
  • Typing my comments made them legible and inviting to read. Evaluations from the students indicated that they found this format helpful.
  • Keeping a record of my previous responses enabled me to monitor a student’s progress better than I could have done through memory alone.
  • Since I had varying examples and exercises for each grammatical error, a student who made the same mistake on several submissions received additional reinforcement of the lesson, not a repetition of exactly the same explanation.
  • By creating the “canned” explanations, examples, and exercises in advance, I was able to put more thought into them than I would have if I had written them off the cuff.
  • I once attended a faculty meeting (not at St. Anselm) at which writing instructors questioned whether grammar ought to be taught at the college level at all. My computerized approach allowed me to address grammar without abandoning other objectives such as critical thinking and reading, style, logic, structure, and research skills.
  • The explanations and examples served almost as personalized grammar handbooks for the students containing short, relevant lessons.
  • Including brief exercises forced students to follow up on their problems.

February 12, 2005

Learning by Writing Software

Using Basic Computer Programming as a Tool to Teach Other Subjects

  • Rudimentary programming is accessible to kids.
Some new computer-programming languages are easy to use. Young people learn software quickly.
  • Programming is fun.
There's a real and immediate satisfaction in making a computer do something it couldn't before.
  • Computer programming both requires and facilitates learning about other subjects.
In order to make a computer do something-anything-a person must first know how to do it herself.

My Idea: Learning by Writing Software

Lessons call for students to create computer programs that demonstrate knowledge unrelated to computer science. That is, I want to teach kids a concept by teaching them to write software that proves out that concept. That is, I want to teach kids basic programming in order to teach them grammar or biology or music.


Suppose I were teaching poetic meter. I might have the students write a computer program to identify whether a line was in iambic pentameter.

What would a computer need to do that?

  • A way for a person to enter a line of text.
  • A stored list of words with their syllable counts and accent patterns.
  • An ability to look up words in the stored list.
  • A set of rules for testing iambic pentameter.
The result would be a very rigid scansion engine with a severely limited vocabulary. Clearly it wouldn't be useful for scholarship.

But what would the students learn while setting it up?


  • To set up the list of words and accents students would work through exercises "hearing" meter.
  • They might disagree on the accents on some words and have to look them up: a lesson in "long" and "short" markings and in dictionary usage.
  • While creating the list of words, they would discover that polysyllabic words generally have fixed accent patterns, but the "long" or "short" accents on monosyllabic words depend on context.
  • Students would learn the distinction between meter and meaning: the computer wouldn't need to know definitions or pronunciations, just accent marks.
  • Debugging the program would require them to test a line's meter by hand and compare their own results to their programs'-repeatedly. This would exercise their skills at manual scansion.
  • While testing and using the program, they might discover that some words (dactyls, for instance) can never be iambic.
Of course they would learn skills unrelated to poetic meter too. The exercise would reinforce:

  • Logical concepts: the "If . . . then" clauses, for instance, that are involved in all computer operations.
  • Artistic expression in designing both the algorithm and the visual interface.
  • Problem solving.
  • Planning and implementing a design.
  • Iterative editing ("debugging" to programmers).
  • Keyboarding skills.

Possible Enhancements

  • Once they built a working program, students could adjust it to detect anapestic dimeter.
  • They could test it on lines of "real" poetry, both familiarizing themselves with the poetry and learning the limitations of such a rigid interpretation of meter.
  • If the programs were designed to be "web-enabled," students could post the software to the school's web site where anyone could interact with it.


Since my goal is not to teach computer programming per se, I wouldn't approach programming as a computer science class might. Practicing bitwise arithmetic and knowing heap memory from stack memory are not required.

I want to treat programming like a chalkboard or like Google. A teacher can use them without explaining why the chalk adheres to the slate or how Google searches billions of web pages in fractions of seconds.

Additional Examples

  • History students could create a "computer career-test" for Elizabethan England. They could study up on some Elizabethan "jobs," from courtier to peasant farmer to blacksmith, and generate a multiple choice, interactive quiz along the lines of the Strong Interest Inventory to recommend a career. ("Do you like to work with your hands? Would you laugh at the king's jokes even if they weren't funny?")
  • Students of grammar could program an online "Mad-Libs" type of software that would teach parts of speech while creating nonsense stories out of their input.
  • Music students could write a program to transpose notes, entered as letters, from one key to another.
  • Biology students could create software to predict the inheritance of dominant and recessive genetic traits via sexual reproduction.
  • Chemistry students could write a program that would return a molecule's atomic weight by adding up the weights of its constituent elements.
  • Students in an English class could follow a sample from one of my introductory programming books to generate amusing, random haiku. Variations could produce "poems" with alliteration or basic rhyme.