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:


The Impending Technological Singularity: Implications for Education

The new school year is finally here. My seniors have returned ready for year two of our journey together through IB Biology, and along with them come a new crop of 9th graders that bring with them the unfamiliar. Every class is different and over time they develop a reputation that will stay with them throughout their four years whether evidence continues to support these labels or not.

In my first class with the 9th graders this year, something peculiar happened that cannot be ignored. In an effort to establish a baseline of my student's understanding of investigative techniques in the laboratory, we began with an introductory activity that for the past two years has taken our students the full period and then some to complete. This was different. This year half of them finished with time left to cause trouble. The kind of trouble that 9th graders inevitably find themselves involved in with they don't have structures and routines controlling their every move. Again. This was different. I noticed a group of them were deeply involved in whatever was happening on one of the student's computer screens and my imagination went wild. Much to my relief, they were watching him code a game that they all played together. I asked how many of them liked to code, and almost half of them raised their hands and they were competing with each other to explain how this "Choose Your Own Adventure" game worked that they were all involved in. It was clear to me that they were able to speak and communicate in the language of code with the same level of comfort and proficiency that you would see in a person who was fluent in a second language. I am predicting this class will be known as the challenging "Techy" group. I say challenging because I would argue that most teachers will not be able to speak the same language that this group of kids prefers to converse in.

In the past 5 years, we have incorporated some problem-based learning units into the Integrated Science 9 and 10 curricula. What always amazes me the most is the ease with which students access and integrate various technologies to communicate their learning. Websites, infographics, programs, novel presentation platforms, video/multimedia creation platforms. You name it. Their learning curve is steep and fast.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

 This got me thinking of Moore's law.

Back in the 1960's Gordon Moore of Intel predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months. This was of course based on prior trends, but it has held true for an additional 50 much so that industry has been driven by this predictive metric.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

In an article in Co.Design, Mark Zucherberg applied Moore's law to the culture of sharing:

We talk about the Moore’s law of sharing, but we never meant that all this will happen on Facebook—it will happen in the world. Our challenge is to make that happen on Facebook. I draw an analogy to Intel. Moore’s law was great for them, because they could point at the world and say, "Okay, in 18 months, someone’s going to fit this many transistors on a circuit board—we’d better be the ones to do it or else someone is gonna eat our lunch!" I look at this the same way. Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to 10 times as much stuff. We’d better be there, because if we’re not, some other service will be.

I would argue that there should be a Moore's law of education as well.

The evolution of artificial intelligence and the impending technological singularity has been an obsession of mine for quite some time. In short, the idea is that in developed nations the evolution of human intelligence has begun to plateau and technology is in a position to overtake human intelligence. By combining the two, humans stand to kick start an unimaginable increase in human intelligence which would trigger a technological singularity. Even more alarming is that the predicted dates of this merger between human and machine seem to focus on the decade between 2020 and 2030. My 9th graders will be graduating from high school in 2020.

As an educator, I have to ask myself, "How am I preparing my students for THIS future?". Even more importantly, Educators should be asking, "How are we preparing ourselves to prepare our students for THIS future?"

I encourage you to check out this video, entitle Humans Need Not Apply: 


I have been a Technology Integration Coach at ASB for the past three years. This has given me a unique opportunity to observe learning from many perspectives. The teachers at ASB are some of the best that I have ever worked with. They work tirelessly to understand their students needs through collaboration and data-informed decision making in an effort to personalize the education of each and every student. The problem is not in the teachers efforts but in our systemic metrics. Our school is an IB school. For seniors the focus is on IB scores and college admissions. To prepare them to achieve their goals it takes 25 hours a day. As a result, education as an institution is focused on the slow-to-change systems (IBO, College Admissions processes, SAT, etc.). This does not leave room for a great deal of forward thinking beyond the general trends of higher education. Another unfortunate consequence is that educators in general are much slower at learning and integrating new technologies into their practices than our students. This is the conundrum. If advances in technology are increasing at a pace predicted by Moore's Law, and our students, despite a lack of instruction in this acquisition of knowledge are gaining at a much faster pace than those in charge of educating them, at what point does the gap become too large? At what point does our current educational model become irrelevant? 

As a biology teacher, I often find that biological systems serve as perfect metaphors for any wicked problem we face as a society. The one that best fits this wicked problem is climate change. For years we have been contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the name of progress and innovation. The human species was launched into relevance by the agricultural and more importantly the industrial revolution. The system was huge, the rewards were inconceivable and numerous, and the risks of environmental impact were considered negligible if they were considered at all. Now it is rumored that climate change is real (have you read about the floods in Louisiana this week?) :-) We are on a pathway to destruction and people are still in denial. Scientists all over the world are desperately searching for solutions while the populace continues to ignore the threats in the face of economic hardship. A plea published by the Economist leads with the subheading: 

Global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindsets. So create some new ones.

Has climate change gotten too out of hand for us to find a solution in time? Is it too late to change the system?

Let this be a warning to educators around the world. If we don't do something to prepare ourselves to prepare this next generation for a technologically advanced society, will the gap between our level of integration and our students level of integration become too wide? Will we become irrelevant? We owe it to our students to look beyond college admissions and IB exams. It is time for education to change our curve before it is too late.

PBL: My WOW Moment of the Day!

Today was a particularly hectic, maddening day for me.  Senior grades were due at 9 am this morning, I taught three back to back classes with a meeting during second break, and my seniors had their Paper 1 and Paper 2 IB Biology exams at 1:00.  It was one of those days.  I am so anxious and distracted while my students are taking exams.  I just want to take it for them.  I would do really well on them and it would sure make the two years leading up to exams so much easier on me as a teacher. AHHHHH!!!

The seniors started wandering in at the beginning of my lunch period (causing me to miss our teacher appreciation lunch) in a last minute desperate attempt to close the loop on two years of learning after what I am sure was a sleepless night despite the fact that I ordered them all to bed at midnight.  "Lunch" ended at 12:10, and my grade 10 students filed in to continue their work on their independent projects that they have been working on for the past couple of weeks.  I had to make a choice, and I chose my seniors who were heading off to their high stakes exams in about half an hour.  So I told my 10th graders to continue their work in their groups and then proceeded to shut the sliding glass doors so that I could focus and calm my frantic seniors while walking them through as many troublesome topics and testing tips as we could manage in that short amount of time.  In fact, I was so focused on them, that I didn't notice the work that was going on outside of my classroom. 

As a teacher, this was one of those moments that you never forget.  While hugging my seniors goodbye hoping that some of my knowledge and confidence would rub off onto them, I looked out to find my entire 10th grade class reviewing the cell membrane as one cohesive group.  Three of the students took the initiative to grab some whiteboard markers and lead the rest of them through a review of the topics that they are required to know for their independent projects.  Amazed and shell-shocked, I went outside and joined them, but not as their teacher. At this moment, I was an admirer, impressed by the fact that each and every one of them had made good decisions about their learning independent of my supervision.  They could have just as easily been playing games, chatting on Facebook, setting fire to each other and countless other things that I would rather not think about.  It was so fulfilling to join a discussion with a group of students that were prepared and determined to explore these concepts at a deeper level.  At the end of the day, if all they walk away from this project with are the skills of collaboration and taking personal responsibility for their learning, I would consider this a huge success.  Fortunately, most of them will also understand the mechanisms of cell membrane regulation and be able to apply them to specific functions of the human body such as lactose intolerance, Parkinson's disease, how endorphins work, starvation, why asthmatics need inhalers, weight loss and many other interesting topics.  I truly look forward to learning from their presentations at the end of the project.

After school today, one of the students posted the pics from class to our Facebook group via Dropbox! 

Looks pretty productive to me! 

Looks pretty productive to me! 

At 3:30, the first wave of my SL students returned to my class to report back on their exams.  The first words out of there mouths were, "You are like magic! The two topics that you predicted and reviewed with us at lunch were essays on the test! Thank God we went over gene transfer!  We nailed it!"  

I would call this a WIN-WIN! I have to say that I am most proud of my 10th graders.  I am so thankful that I work with students who are committed to their learning and motivated enough to engage without having to have someone looking over their shoulders monitoring their every move.  I am also thankful that they didn't start any fires.  I think a little celebration is in order. 

Dropping the F-bomb in Class Part 1: Why?


A couple of years ago, I saw a student post the solution to a math problem that he had worked out on Facebook.  Several of his classmates were tagged on the post.  When I asked a student in my class about it, she told me that they were all struggling to solve this problem, so he shared his solution with the class. 

Screenshot 4:6:13 8:47 AM.jpeg

When I saw the student's post, a few questions popped into my mind:  

  1. How many of the students in that class actually understood this problem, or more importantly the problem solving strategy after seeing this post on Facebook?   
  2. If this teacher does grade homework, how many of these students will own up to their confusion and how many of them will pretend to understand for the sake of the grade?    
  3. How long will it take this teacher to discover that his students have not mastered this concept/skill? 

What were the first thoughts that went through your mind?  If your initial response to the post was that social media should not be allowed in schools because it encourages and/or facilitates cheating, you might be teaching in the wrong century.  We typically use technology to facilitate practices that are already in place. It is incredibly naive to think that students weren't coming together and sharing these solutions on paper long before Facebook arrived on the scene.  I know that I did.  This is the main reason that I stopped grading homework. Homework grades are as unreliable as effort grades when attempting to measure a student's mastery of standards in your classroom.  If the homework you assign is not meaningful and you don't have 100% student buy-in, some of your students will do whatever it takes to get the grade.  It is next to impossible to trace the source of the homework effort and certainly not worth the time that it will take to do so.  Facebook is simply another medium, and one with endless possibilities and benefits for learning.   Let's face it, social media is our new reality.  It is time for us to embrace it or be left behind.  At least this is how I see it so... Rather than trying to change something that was out of my control, I decided to embrace Facebook and leverage the benefits of these exchanges for some "just in time" teaching opportunities.  The next day I created Facebook groups for all of my classes as a space for them to have these discussions about homework.  The only difference was that I would be able to formatively assess my students understanding "just in time" to teach my class the next day.  

Two years later, Facebook has become my go-to "LMS".  I  could actually write a book about the benefits of using Facebook groups in your class coupled with strategies for teachers to leverage these benefits.  However, since this is just a blog post, I will leave you with my top three reasons for using Facebook Groups in my classes:   


1)  Students are constantly checking Facebook at school, at home and on the go via their smart phones.  Every time someone posts in the group, all of the members receive a message alert, and who can resist that? FB groups now have a feature that tells you which members have seen the post.  As a result, I use FB to post assignments, resources, and discussions.  This allows me to adjust and modify plans on the go as well.  The example below was an assignment that I created in response to an awesome discussion my students were having about AIDS in my FB group.  I completely changed my lesson plan the following day to allow them to continue their learning on this topic.  If I hadn't witnessed the conversation that they were having, I would have moved on without leveraging this opportunity. 

Screenshot 4:6:13 9:50 AM.jpeg

2)  Students don't normally work on their homework until it is past my "bedtime".  Before Facebook, a student would get stuck and then send me an e-mail.  If I didn't respond immediately, they would give up and show up to class with an incomplete assignment, unprepared to build on their learning.  Let's face it, e-mail is unreliable.  Students check it less and less, and the responsibility of responding is yours and yours alone.  With Facebook, students can post questions to the group, and other students can respond (immediately), thereby increasing the chance that they will sort out their issues prior to class.  Another benefit of this is that if several students respond incorrectly, I will know this before class the following day and be able alter my plan accordingly.  This helps to minimize the gaps that get created in learning due to time lapses between learning, assessments, and grading of assessments, which consequently alleviates some of the frustration and motivation issues that accompany this disconnect between teaching and learning. 

Student requesting help for her lab write-up. 

Student requesting help for her lab write-up. 

Notice the time difference between the post and the first response. 

Notice the time difference between the post and the first response. 

3)  Facebook syncs with Dropbox and most social media apps (Flipboard etc.).  You can also upload files from your computer like presentations from class.  Because of this, I can share articles and discoveries to extend their learning beyond the curriculum.  Students do the same.  After modeling this practice for a couple of months, my Facebook group became a place for students to share and discuss their own personal finds relevant to class discussions etc. One example of how I use this extend my class beyond the 85 minute period is described at the end of my post, 21st Century Magic 8 Ball.  Facebook has helped me to transfer the responsibility of learning to the students.

Screenshot 4:6:13 8:31 AM.jpeg
This is handy for revision, or when students are absent especially when away on school trips etc. 

This is handy for revision, or when students are absent especially when away on school trips etc. 

A student posted his own review flash cards to share with the class. 

A student posted his own review flash cards to share with the class. 

Again, student initiated post to share with classmates. 

Again, student initiated post to share with classmates. 

By now I hope that I have convinced some of you to embrace social media in your classrooms.  For those of you who are ready to take the leap, my next post in the series will be about how to set up secure, private, unsearchable groups on Facebook WITHOUT being friends with your students.  For those of you still on the fence, stay tuned for my follow up post on busting the myths about Facebook groups in the classroom.  In the meantime, if your only barriers are policies set by the administration or school district, feel free to share this post with them to begin a dialogue. Let's see if we can't change their minds!