Is That A Right?

2020 SucksDon’t get excited – I’m not diving into current events or anything. (I’m far too demure for such things.) In fact, I’m intentionally avoiding the subject at the moment because any effort I make to write rationally about what we’ve become ends up as a spittle-spewing, obscenity-laden rant and, worse, totally off-brand. Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook, where I’ve lost even the veneer of professionalism or decency towards my fellow man, can no doubt verify this assertion. 

Instead, I’d like to share two very simple things you may find useful. Or, you may not. You may find yourself a little bit sad for me if these are my best new cutting-edge distance learning ideas at the moment. Either way, I'm giddy enough for both of us.

“Is That A Right?” is the name of an activity I’ve done with American Government and American History classes for years, and which I’m considering trying “virtually” this fall if circumstances lead us down that path.

Is That A Sample

It’s not even an overly innovative lesson. It's really just a PowerPoint presentation with a series of descriptions of potential “rights” as per the U.S. Constitution. Students vote ‘Yes’ if they believe whatever’s on the slide is a protected right and 'No' if they don't, and we discuss it a bit (“Tasha, why do you think so?” or “So, Garrett… would you still say that’s a right if we change the wording to what Tasha said?” You guys know how discussions work.) The next slide tells us the “right” answer, often with disclaimers about how it’s actually a bit more complicated than that – because it’s almost always a bit more complicated than that. Then we go to the next one.

I recently converted the most recent version of this presentation into Google Slides. You can access it in its entirety right here. If it’s something you’d like to use, all you have to do is make a copy (File, Make a Copy…) and it’s yours. Once you’ve copied it, you can change prompts, explanations, images, etc., just like with PowerPoint.

Is That Another SampleSo how could we do this if we’re not in the same place?

I’ve had the privilege of co-teaching several workshops with an amazing history teacher from the Houston area named Barrett Doke. He’s one of those guys that loves technology, but always as a tool for putting more of the learning into the hands of the students and never as an end in and of itself. We all say that’s how we want to use technology – but he actually does it that way. (Now, the rest of you don’t get all defensive – I’m sure MANY of you are just as wonderful. I’m just sharing my personal warm fuzzies.)

Doke is partial to Google Slides and gets rather... enthusiastic when given the chance to share the many simple things you can do with them to make your lessons more flexible and your technology more useful without investing endless hours or – and this is a biggie – relying on your district to purchase and maintain subscriptions to specific apps or equipment. He showed me something he liked to do in Slides that would never have occurred to me. (As I said at the outset, it's entirely possible this is obvious to everyone else in the world besides me. I can live with that.)

If you adjust the ‘View/Zoom’ for your slideshow while NOT in ‘Presentation’ mode, you’ll discover there’s all sorts of unused space around each slide. You may have stumbled across this in the past when moving around graphics or setting up animation. As it turns out, you can put stuff in these margins and it will be saved and accessible along with everything else, even though it’s not part of the slide.


Doke often uses this space for what I think of as ‘tokens’ which students can access. These can be numbered or customized to include their names (although the tokens have to be slightly larger that way). Whether they’re all in class together or meeting virtually (but synchronously), he’ll pose a question or prompt and offer the same sorts of options you’d see with multiple choice. Students move their tokens to the part of the slide which best reflects their response, then Doke calls on a few to explain why they chose what they did. Because they’re all on the same document, everyone sees what everyone else is answering – just like in class.

The Magic Extra Space

Yes, this is very similar to what Pear Deck does. I’ve not used Pear Deck extensively, but I hear great things. It might actually do this particular type of activity a bit better. I don’t have it, however, so it’s not a factor.

Here’s the long distance version of the same activity. I’ve used it with teachers successfully, but haven’t yet had the chance to do it this way with students. You’ll have to make your own copy (File, Make a Copy…) if you’d like to use it.

Tin Can PhoneI like several things about this lesson in this format:

The discussions are still the discussions. They’re the key to the lesson being meaningful and the information sticky. Without good discussions, it’s just another quiz.

Anytime you can have synchronous (i.e., “live”) student responses in a form other than asking them to speak up in class, you change the dynamics and who’s likely to participate. That’s not to say it magically guarantees full engagement, but students who may not take initiative in class will often drag their token to the answer they like best.

If you have particularly shy or fragile students, the alpha-numeric system allows a degree of anonymity. One of my priorities is usually creating a dynamic in which everyone learns to speak up, and in which disagreement is healthy and means you respect the other person enough to challenge them, so anonymity is not a priority to me. Plus, it’s difficult to have discussions, even online, anonymously.

Finally, the slideshow is easily shared with students. It's forever available should they choose to review anything or question anything after having time to think about it.

Old ComputerThere are, of course, several downsides:

It’s tricky to keep track of who’s who on Slides. On Google Docs or Google Sheets, students logged in to their school Gmail show up on my screen as a cursor with their name next to it. I can also check version histories and edits in case there are shenanigans. I’m not sure Slides has a similar feature, and even if it does, it won’t help you if your students don’t have school Gmail accounts. That means in theory, anyone can move any number. (Then again, is there ANYTHING in class – virtual or otherwise – that’s completely bozo-proof?)

In order for students to have access to move their tokens around, I have to give them access to ‘Edit’ the Slideshow. That means in theory, they can add or delete slides or change other elements of the activity. I’ve made messing with the slides (accidentally or otherwise) a bit more difficult by ‘locking in’ everything except the tokens themselves. If you’ve made your own copy of the “Long Distance” version of the activity, you may have noticed that while you can move the tokens around, you can’t move around shapes or text on the slides like you normally could. It's still possible - for you or anyone with 'Edit' access - but it's more laborious and would require both knowledge and focused intent. This is thanks to another cool thing Doke showed me that is gradually changing my online instructional world. (Again, keep in mind that I’m nearly a thousand years old and still both startled and impressed by things like lava lamps or instant music downloads.)

If anyone’s interested, I’ll try to talk about 'locking in' elements of various slides next time. I’m learning to get better at doing it, but I’m not yet adept at explaining it. For now, you’re welcome to play with “Is That A Right?” and let me know how it works out. Keep in mind that you’ll have to make your own copy before it will let you edit anything or even move those little tokens around. Obviously, once you've made your own copy, you can add far more antagonistic, current event-related slides of your own and blame it on that guy who posted it on the internet to begin with.

You absolutey have that right.

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