This Web-based App is Nothing Short of GENIUS


This morning as I read through my Facebook news feed, I came across an annotated article from the WaPo that my friend, Melanie Smith-Bell had shared. As a lead into to the article, Melanie said:

I love it when the Washington Post does their interactive features with the annotations where you get a brief explanation for each highlight and then further links to help you find more information on the specifics. That’s what online journalism needs to move toward. Using the full capability of web based information.

After reading the article, I happened to agree with her assessment of her reading experience. This got me thinking... For years now, I have kept a running Facebook group for my biology classes where I post articles that are relevant to the topics we are discussing in class, and I encourage students to do the same. This allows us to extend conversations about biology beyond the textbook, the walls of my classroom, and the 90 minute time limit. The articles I choose are meant to do two main things:

  1. Expose students to real world applications of the content that we study in a limited scope that is defined by the textbook and the curriculum. In courses with external exams like IB and AP, the syllabus drives the teaching, and time is always a limiting factor. Sometimes it is hard to model the application of foundational learning to the world that we live in to the extent that we would like.
  2. Help kids to revise content throughout the course by pointing out connections to prior learning in applications that are integrated, not just topic specific.

Sharing articles is a great first step, but there have always been limitations to truly accomplishing what I set out to do by simply sharing the article.

  1. Often the articles I post contain foundational information that goes to a greater depth than the content presented in class. I have always wished that I could walk the students through these articles and offer enough of an explanation for the concepts that they are unfamiliar with to allow them to truly access the significance of article itself. Simply adding a commentary at the end doesn't do the trick because it doesn't reveal my triggers.
  2. As I engage in reading these articles, I actively think of applications, questions, further potential for scientific exploration... the list goes on. I have always wished that I could share these thoughts, extensions, and questions with the students to model active reading, engagement, critical thinking, exploration, and questioning.
  3. Nothing that happens in the real world is isolated. Everything is integrated. Yet, when we teach a science curriculum it is often isolated. Today we are talking about the chemical structures of starches. Tomorrow we are going to talk about enzyme digestion of starch. While there is an opportunity to make connections during these spiraled learning experiences, again, time is limited to truly dig in and reteach. Not to mention, students do not innately transfer learning. Making connections and transferring new learning to other concepts, disciplines, and real world problems are things that need to be modeled and taught.
  4. Just because I share an article, it doesn't mean that every student reads it. How do we ensure that they have not only read an article, but understood it, and have the space to ask questions and explore along their own pathway of learning?

As I read the WaPo article, I found the annotations to be extremely helpful. There were so many gaps in my knowledge that I would have missed most of the subtle nuances. What ARE the rules guiding a FISA warrant? How is it renewed? If I am not armed with this knowledge, I run the risk of accepting the claims in the memo simply because it was written by someone who by the nature of their job and qualifications are in a better position to judge this issue accurately. Thanks to the annotation, I was enlightened about things that helped me to read this memo with a more critical eye and I was empowered to formulate my own questions.

The top of the annotation sidebar had the logo GENIUS, so I decided to search Genius annotations. It turns out that Genius is a free web-based annotation software originally intended for annotation of music.


So why was WaPo using this app to annotate its articles? Hmmmm.... This is the beauty of innovation. According to Yale Information Technology Services:

Innovation can be defined as the process of implementing new ideas to create value for an organization. This may mean creating a new service, system, or process, or enhancing existing ones.

Genius expanded its reach allowing news organizations like WaPo to take a site intended for the annotation of music and use Genius's re-purposed applications to create value for WaPo's readers. We as teachers have the power to do the same for our students. Not only can I now achieve the goals that I set out to accomplish with the sharing of articles on my Facebook groups, I can now pass on this power to my students as generators of their own commentaries and discussions about articles they read beyond science.

It could not have been easier to sign up. Simply go to this link and log on. Simple instructions on how to annotate articles can be found at this link. Here is an example of a short article that I messed around with for my class. Feel free to play with the comment function. After posting about this discovery, I have already heard back from many teachers with ideas of how this can be adapted to suit their unique educational needs in the classroom. To name a few:

  • EAL teachers: Classroom teachers often share articles with language above the reading comprehension levels of many EAL students. EAL teachers can simply take the article, and highlight difficult words and annotate them with their meaning at a level that these students can understand allowing them to access the curriculum alongside the other students in the classroom.
  • History teachers: When doing analysis of primary sources, history teachers could have students annotate articles as an assessment.
  • English teachers: When analyzing the meaning of texts in literature, teachers can prompt discussion in the class around certain quotes to debate intentions, meaning, as well as pointing subtle nuances and writing strategies used by the authors (can you tell I am not an English teacher... or a history teacher ... or an EAL teacher for that matter??)

How might you use this in the courses that you teach?

After signing up, Genius sent me a welcome email. It seems they have developed a Genius News Blog that focuses on print rather than music. Perhaps an Education Blog is in their future?  Check it out and let me know what you think. As Genius says:


Gamification 101: Training Camp Part II

Image credit:

Image credit:

When I think back to my process for gamifying my Physics class last year, it felt a little like the journey a coach goes through while preparing for that first game of the season. The planning and execution phases can easily be divided into training camp, designing the playbook, pre-game pep-talk, the season opener, and finally reviewing tape.  In this post I will discuss my approach to training camp. 

I am a die hard Cowboys fan in case you couldn't tell from the picture at the beginning of this post.  While searching for an appropriate image for training camp, I happened upon this headline from

Cowboys May Use Center Who Never Snapped

This resonated with me as I was by no means a gamer when I decided to explore this option in my class.  I had played my share of Angry Birds, but that was about it unless you counted my brief pre-teen encounters with Space Invaders, Pac Man and the occasional game of Frogger.  Once I discovered boys, I tried to forget that Atari and parachute pants were ever part of my vernacular. 

I wouldn't even consider myself a casual gamer.  Last year, while the idea of gamification was percolating in my brain, I taught across the hall from a true gamer who was completely immersed in gamifying homework practices in his class. I called him Crazy Train as the ride he was on was borderline obsessive and insane (or so I thought at the time).  I frequently caught myself checking to make sure the coast was clear before leaving my room in an effort to avoid interactions with him because every conversation was ultimately dominated by his overwhelming excitement over things like avatars, subeconomies, level-ups, warp zones, and other gamer terms that sounded a lot like Chinese to me.

Fortunately, for me, I soon discovered that you do not need to be a gamer to gamify your content.  That is what training camp is all about.  For the non-gamers out there that are looking for a way to make your classes more engaging and fun, this is a good place to start.  As a bonus, gamification will also help the learning stick. 

Step 1:  Play Games...Actively

To get started you simply need to play some games.  Pick something easy and manageable at first, like Angry Birds.  Approach your game play with the same strategies that you advise your students to use when "actively" reading an article or chapter in a book.  Be an active, reflective participant in your game play. 

While playing, ask yourself the following questions and take note of your responses:

  • What emotions did you feel throughout the game play and how did you respond?
  • What made you want to continue playing?  
  • Was there only one way move to the next level, or did you have choice in your journey?  
  • What happened when you made mistakes and how did you feel?  
  • Did you feel like you were in control?  
  • What kind of feedback did you get, and how often?  
  • How did the feedback affect your play?  
  • What elements of the game helped you to maintain your focus?
  • What was your reaction to failure?  How was this different to other experiences you have had with failure? 
  • What role did game mechanics play in your experience?  What role did the fictional story line play in your experience?  (If you are not familiar with these terms, read through the references to these in my previous post.) 
  • What learning was required of you to be successful in the game? 

Now compare your experience to the experience that your students have while participating in one of your lessons.  How are they similar?  How are they different? 

Step 2: Do a Little Research

There are three books that I have found helpful in designing my game.  

  1. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and   Strategies for Training and Education
  2. Designing Games:  A Guide to Engineering Experiences 
  3. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps

There is also great value in reading blogs about gamification.  Once you discover a blogger that has a passion for gamification, check out the bloggers that are linked to his/her blog.  This is a hot topic at the moment, so a simple search should send you in the right direction.  A few that I would highly recommend at the moment are: 

You should also follow these people on Twitter if you are a Tweep:

Finally, if you are really keen, Kevin Werbach from U. Penn offers a course on Coursera about Gamification.  He doesn't have one going at the moment, but you can add yourself to the watchlist and Coursera will inform about the next start date.  You can also contact him personally on Twitter

Step 3: Discuss Your Ideas with Colleagues

After doing a bit of research, I was ready to jump on the Crazy Train myself (metaphorically speaking).  It was truly great to have him as a resource throughout this process. If there are other teachers interested in gamification at your school or district, form a group to discuss strategies with each other. Two minds (or three or four) are always better than one.  If you are flying solo, revert back to my Twitter suggestion.  There are so many people out there who would love to discuss this topic with you.  Just search using the hashtags #gamification or #gamify, find someone who is tweeting about relevant experiences and then engage them in a dialogue, or reach out to one of the handles posted above.  You can also send questions to me at

As we head into summer vacation, this is the perfect time to start exploring gamification while you are not immersed in the day to day grind of being a teacher. Gamifying your content takes time.  Start small and give it a go!  In my next post I will discuss designing your playbook.  Until then, happy training! 

Problem Finders: Tweaking KWL for the 21st Century

Hypertrichosis , the werewolf disease.

Hypertrichosis, the werewolf disease.

In my last post, I shared the new and improved version of the KWL graphic organizer, and how I tweaked this version for the purpose of my biology class.   I am in the middle of my genetics unit at the moment, and I was trying to come up with the best way to teach about transmission of genes.  Traditionally I would give the students a set of problems that requires them to recognize the connection between alleles, traits, and their mode of inheritance (dominant, recessive, codominant, sex-linked etc.) and then they would solve probability problems using Punnett squares and pedigrees.  However, I decided to challenge myself to find a more engaging approach that required students to question and think critically about the problems.  This is when I discovered this fantastic resource, a seemingly endless list of case studies that are nothing if not perplexing.  One great example of this is the Blue People of Kentucky.  It has all of the marks of perplexity that Dan Meyer speaks of, so I decided to turn my students into genetics detectives. 

Since this is an IB biology course, there is specific content that students are responsible for learning like sex-linked inheritance in hemophilia, multiple alleles with blood types, codominance in sickle cell anemia etc.  I selected five case studies for the students to investigate and began with the classic inbreeding royals example of hemophilia. 

A fabulously outspoken student that just arrived at ASB last year took one look at the first case and said, "Not this again!  This is only like the third time that I have studied this!"  O-U-C-H!  Fortunately, the werewolf and the rest were new and interesting to him, but he brought up a really great point.  One that I had already been thinking about after watching Ewan McIntosh's TEDxLondon talk a couple of nights before. 

You see though my intentions were to engage my students by providing them with authentic problems that were somewhat messy and difficult to solve unlike the classic problem sets, I DEFINED the problems for them which were indirectly DEFINED for me by IBO.  As Ewan states in his blog post, "Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders."   

He proposes a model in which 20 to 30 global themes are presented and discussed and then the students began to gather information within and beyond the walls of the classroom and come up with problems that they would like to tackle head on.  This story ends with a prototype instead of a wiki.  I have actually informally proposed this course several times over the past two years.  Here is my vision:  

It starts with the book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.  Students discuss the different global issues and then bring them down to a tangible local level.  Allow them to create interest-based teams of problem solvers and then mentor them through their research and prototyping.  With this course, students will begin to impact their world right now.  The graphic organizer for their course?  PKWHLAEN (I know, this is getting ridiculous.  It's time to abandon the acronym). 

P:  What problem in my local community ignites my passion to the point of action?

K:  What do I know about the variables that are affected by this problems or are contributing to its existence?  This would involve not only academic research, but also data collection from authentic sources and an evaluation of the problem in an authentic setting.

W:  What do I want to resolve about this situation?  What resources, including experts in the field and project participants, will I need? 

H:  How do I find out the information that I need to create a prototype that will attempt to solve this problem?  How do I contact the people whose expertise and talents will help to make my project a reality? 

L:  What have I learned through my research?  Can my idea become a reality or do I need to go back a few steps and change my plan? 

A:  What actions do I need to take to turn my ideas into a reality?  PROTOTYPE.

E:  Evaluate the prototype.

N:  What are the next steps?  Do I go back to the drawing board?  Do I share out my ideas and expand my protocol to other communities?  Do I build on what I have already done and tackle another face of the larger global issue? 

In the middle of Christmas vacation, I received an urgent message from two students.  They wanted to call me to discuss a project idea that they had that would help bring clean drinking water to the slums of Mumbai.  They have now been doing independent research outside of school for the past three months.  Their idea has morphed from clean drinking water to designing a device that could help control the pollutants released into the air when people are burning trash.  A few weeks ago, they showed up after school to check out how the exhaust system works on the fume hood in my classroom. 

It sounds like I might have two problem finders who would make great candidates for this course.  I guess I just need to go ahead and make my proposal official.  

If you want to know more about Ewan's problem finder's mission, check out his lab!

LKWHQ: 21st Century Backwards Learning in Biology

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

We are all familiar with the good old KWL chart otherwise known by my students as "Kills Will to Live" if I use it too often.  As teachers, we use it to activate prior knowledge in our students as they prepare to learn new material.  Recently there has been an upgrade to this chart to include the use of 21st Century Skills such as information fluency .  Allow me to introduce KWHL or if you are really serious, KWHLAQ!  Go big or go home! 

What do we know?  What do we want to learn?  How will we find out? What have I learned?  What action will I take?  What new questions do I have? 

In science, KWHLAQ is a good outline of design labs and some projects, but it can easily be applied across other disciplines as well.  In fact the 10th graders at my school do a research project on controversial issues in history that culminates in an action based on their findings. This would be a perfect graphic organizer for this type of project.  We have recently been looking for ways to infuse information fluency deliberately into what we do on a regular basis.  This chart would be helpful for this purpose.  At the very minimum, we all need to be making the shift from KWL to KWHL, while at the same time looking for opportunities to add the action component wherever possible.  For a description of how this fits with PYP, check out this post incidentally written by the elementary school tech coordinator at ASB, Maggie Hos-McGrane.  Teach Thought, one of my go to blogs, also wrote a post about KWHL that you should check out.

I would like to propose two other models:  The first model I call LKWHAQ.  A backwards by design for scientific research intended to help students understand the scientific process better by studying what those who have come before them have done.    

The topic for class today:  Sickle Cell Anemia. 

Prior to class, students will preview a web documentary about the research led by Linus Pauling on Sickle Cell Anemia. 

Step 1 (L):  What do we know today about (insert topic) that we LEARNED from their collective research? 

At the beginning of class, we will go over what we know about Sickle Cell Anemia with regards to the specific mutation, the mode of transmission, and the impact of malaria on the allele frequency of this disease.  I will then give students an article published in 1949 by Linus Pauling.  

Step 2 (K):  Students will then summarize what they KNEW in 1949 and how they arrived at these conclusions.  (Note that this paper was published four years before the structure of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick. This is yet another rabbit hole you could enter.)

Step 3 (W): I will then provide them with a second somewhat controversial article with racist undertones characteristic of the social climate at the time entitled, Data Pertaining to the Population Dynamics of Sickle Cell Disease (truly a fascinating read if you know the background and understand the science):  Students will then identify what the researchers WANTED TO LEARN?  We will also discuss their hypothesis before digesting the data. 

Step 4 (H)HOW DID THEY LEARN?  This is a perfect place to address this question as electrophoresis technology had just entered the scene a couple of years prior to this research.  Students will then discover how they gathered and analyzed their data. What were their challenges and limitations?  We will also look at the bibliography to identify the research that formed their baseline knowledge.

Step 5 (A): We will then summarize and evaluate their conclusions based on what we know now about this disease.  Are they moving in the right direction?  What pieces are still missing?  What would they need to do to arrive at the conclusions that shaped our understanding of sickle cell anemia today?  What technology is needed?  I will introduce a third article entitled Population Dynamics of the Sickle Cell Trait in the Black Caribs of British Honduras, Central America.  With this we will discuss additional research done based on the findings of earlier research.  Their ACTION component. 

Step 6 (Q): Since our research brought us up to the early sixties, we will IDENTIFY THE QUESTIONS  that still remained based on our current knowledge and match this knowledge to the introduction of new technologies that would enable us to advance our learning on this subject. 

This type of exploration is perfect for topics like genetics.  Let's face it, today, we can find almost anything on the Internet.  By starting with what we know today and then tracking the progress of the research that brought us to these conclusions, my students will have the opportunity to observe science in its purest form and track the formation of ideas and concepts that we "know to be true" today.  They will  discover how the technology available at the time of research determined (limited) the extent of our knowledge, and then ponder the potential impact that future discoveries will have on our current knowledge base.  They will also be able to discover how the social and political climate can influence the research conducted bringing about bias as a limiting factor. 

At the very least, this is a much more interesting than simply memorizing the fact that a single base substitution mutation causes valine to replace glutamic acid in the beta chain of hemoglobin resulting in the sickling of cells in low oxygen pressure conditions.  Sometimes keeping it simple is just not the way to go. 

This post is already too long, so I will leave you with a teaser for my second proposed KWL adaptation.  This morning I watched a very provocative TEDxLondon talk called the Problem Finders.  Check it out and see if you can guess my new acronym.