Task Cards – a friend to students and teachers

What are Task Cards?

Physically, Task Cards are:

  • like index cards or larger
  • often laminated so re-usable
  • sets of tasks for students to complete.

In practice, they are basically like targeted, reusable worksheets, but with some advantages.

Here’s a sample of a set I’ve made for close reading and enjoyment of Robert Frost’s poetry.  This is one of 72 cards in a set exploring three poems (24 cards / poem).

You can see what the main parts of the card are (click the image to see a larger version):The Parts of a Task Card

Why are the a Friend to Students?

The main advantage of task cards is they act as one-on-one coaching to students. Instead of sitting passively in group discussions, students have a targeted task that supports the learning goal. The fact that cards come in a set makes them even more useful to students – they can choose the task and pace that best matches their current interests and abilities.

Why are the a Friend to Teachers?

First, every teacher (human!) likes to be effective. Knowing that students are getting one-on-one tasks increases your effectiveness. Doesn’t that down time – when some students have completed a task and sit idly waiting for the next – tug at your heart?  Quality Task Cards target a continuum of content, skills or understandings so when one task is completed, there’s the next, ready for learning!

Second, having just mentioned “content, skills or understandings” and “quality,” the best cards go beyond pointing students to retrieve or demonstrate declarative knowledge. Sure this is part of learning, but it’s the foundation, not the pinnacle.  So notice the “Task 1” and the numbers in the lower right corner (1-4).  These illustrate that Task Cards easily support a range of cognitive and even affective learning.  See how the four cards below progress in level of challenge and openness?

Task Cards support levels of learning

Card 1 simply asks students to read the poem. Card 2 prompts an engagement with the content. Card 3 asks students to draw inferences / make an interpretation. Finally, Card 4 moves beyond the surface of the poem into reflection and connection to students’ body of expertise.

Third, the savvy teacher can use such cards in many ways. Here are a few examples:

  • Differentiation: Some students use only cards 1-2 to focus on developing a solid foundation before advancing to cards 3-4. Extension activities in Cards 3-4 can be the main activity for more advanced students.
  • Jigsaw Groups – have students work in groups of 4 (or 8 if they need the additional support of a partner). Students in the group are then responsible for each task before sharing their learning to the group
  • Teachable Moments – If students become stuck on any one card, that’s great formative feedback and tells you that you have an opportunity to do some targeted teaching. You can have students offer their answers to inspire a class discussion or socratic session.  Notice that because the cards are not seeking “right answers,” getting students to share their ideas to the whole class multiplies insights and learning.
  • Sponge, Lesson or Unit – Because the cards come in sets, teachers can choose whether to use a card as a sponge or bell-ringer activity to engage students in learning rather than lose precious time. A whole level or set could serve as a lesson. Or, when the sets target broader and deeper content, use them as a core part of a unit.  For example the set I’ve made on Robert Frost promotes a close reading and analysis of three of his most important poems. That’s a main part of a poetry unit ready and waiting.
  • Personalized Learning – each student can move through a set of cards are her or his pace. This is especially true when Answer Cards are provided as in the Frost set. Click the image below to see a larger version.

Answer Cards

Fourth, did you notice that all this learning required NO ADDITIONAL preparation or grading! What better friend for teachers to have than ready-made and effective learning activities?! Remember that you can then re-use them whenever you like and in any of the above and other ways. The friendship keeps on growing!

Please let me know what you think and suggest other poets for whom you’d like to see such Task Cards made. You can use the comments, email or contact form.

The Art of Pursuing Truth: a call to Educators

You might be familiar with this quotation from the master. What’s usually shared is only the first part:

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,

Certainly this is the magic of any real work of art, regardless whether it’s painting, sculpture, poetry, prose, music, filmmaking, etc. The artist brings together insight and techniques to communicate something that is usually impossible to communicate in direct statement. Typically, this is because the “truth” of anything of significance is more complex and multi-layered, and these insights on a broader and deeper story are what we can see and feel in the presence of great art.

Or can we?

This is where the ending of the sentence comes in, the one that’s often left off.

at least the truth that is given us to understand.

The “us” in this statement is, of course, the artist, who must have some understanding worth sharing. But this “us” is also “us,” the viewers, the audience, those of us attempting to perceive the artist’s truth. Lived experience is sometimes the only preparation needed, but we can all look to learning experiences we’ve had that developed a more ready foundation to realize the understandings communicated in great art.

And when we have this greater foundation and we can see and feel more, we are more fully human. This is the benefit of a real education and the crime of inflicted education, schooling that isn’t wholly focused on allowing each individual to develop their own richer understandings.

Let’s keep the pursuit of this truth deep in our hearts and the front of our minds as we use what we know works in classrooms: giving students meaningful choices in the development of their education as we support their increasingly sophisticated competence in a culture of mutual respect and growth.

Thanks, Picasso and all the masters who have enhanced our lives.

Political corollary: Interesting that some leaders in my home country today are having difficulty understanding that great work of political art: The US Constitution, and the framers’ emphasis that no one is above the law. Perhaps some missed the lesson plan distinguishing between art and propaganda? Real, rich and relevant education matters.


Quote from a 1923 interview with Pablo Picasso in the New York City periodical “The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art” as evidenced by The Quote Investigator. Picasso Image from Wikimedia Commons

#GettingPoetry 2 – Fiddling & the Genuine

You have to love it when a master of the artform begins one of her poems with this line. Marianne Moore‘s most famous poem, simply entitled Poetry, is a lesson in why poetry matters.

She’s obviously taking issue with the “art” of poetry, the fiddly terms, techniques and devices that poets use – and abandons most of them!:

  • Forget all that rhyme scheme, ABAB, business
  • Skip the scansion looking for iambs, trochees and meter
  • and you won’t even find much in the way of euphony, alliteration, etc.

But you will find a conversational voice, logic and amazing imagery. All to the point of challenging: if you are interested in “the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness” and “the genuine, then you are interested in poetry.”

And bitten by this interest in (life? reality? shared experience?), the irony is that we need to master What poetic devices are and How they are used so we can gain insight into the genuine: Why poets choose their “fiddly techniques” to communicate their vision of the genuine. To our edification, annoyance, sympathy, insight, etc.

You might wonder why I’m fixating on poetry these days. It’s because I’m digging back into my passion for it to create a set of learning activities that can help students (everyone?) to “Get Poetry” as something vibrant, not schoolish or a problem to solve. My goal in the “Getting Poetry” series is:

to help students understand and appreciate poetry so much
they might cry, sigh, smile or memorize!

#GettingPoetry 1 – Moments of Insight

I think our world could do with a little more poetry. We live in polarized times where monumental decisions get made off the back of three word simplifications like “Get Brexit Done,” “Build a Wall” and “Stop the Boats.”

At the risk of offending sensibilities, can I suggest that life is more complex than these phrases imply? Pick whatever outcome you believe in, but a moment to pause, reflect and experience could go a long way to furthering communication and maybe even bridging some divides.

Great poetry is one way to prompt such a “pause, reflect and experience.” Poetry, like life, is not a riddle to be solved. Also like life, assuming that we “get” all poems or poets, like “getting” everything in life, can lead people astray.

Better to seek what’s real for you, make connections and find insights. Today let’s entertain a poet radical enough to question the importance of poetry itself – especially when compared to the power of love.

e.e. cummings, Since Feeling is First

Enjoy this as our more momentary media throws what it throws at us…

Designing a New 3Rs Thanksgiving Activity

Introductory Video

As the air grows crisper and most schools in the US anticipate an upcoming holiday, I thought it was a perfect opportunity for a “real, rich and relevant” twist on traditional Thanksgiving lesson plans. This post will share my design process for curriculum development, on the chance it helps some young teachers.

Whenever I design a lesson or activity, I like to see what can be part of the “learning mix.” Obviously the upcoming holiday becomes one part. But by high school, teenagers have been through all the usual Thanksgiving inspired activities, prompting them to count their blessings. This is worthy, but I think something a little different is needed to hook students who can sometimes be justifiably jaded and skeptical. So isn’t it interesting that just as we in the US focus on a holiday about “unity,” the impeachment hearings and all our political and cultural divisions loudly buzz in the background! Great! This creates the “cognitive dissonance” that can lead to student insights and “ah-ha’s!” So there’s a “Big Tick” for “Real.” Now we need “Rich” and “Relevant.”

My biggest motivation is creating those sparks in the minds of learners. A second is the inspiration I receive from what can be found on the Web. These gifts never fail to provide something that can make student learning richer than we can with our traditional resources. Since first exploring the Web in 1994, I’ve never been let down, especially if I look using my adult, big-picture mind and lived experiences to search from a slightly skewed perspective. I encourage you to use the Web for what you can’t get from your traditional resources.

So here was my thought process: a bit of searching turned up all the historical challenges to our Thanksgiving Mythology, and that was interesting, but giving the divisive nature of our times, I wasn’t so interested in getting students to argue and persuade, reflecting seemed a much more fruitful cognitive pursuit. So how to feed this reflection? This is what lead to gathering links on the benefits of gratitude. Choosing an affective element like gratitude clearly brings in our last of the New 3Rs: relevance. Thus we have all the ingredients: a real topic, rich resources and a relevant task for students to engage in: reflection on some aspect of how giving thanks can play out for themselves in these divisive times.

Now with the Real, Rich and Relevant pieces in place, the last step was to figure out the actual learning activity. Experience has taught me that all but the most capable and sophisticated high school writers can use a bit of help to not only engage in the cognitive process of reflection, but to also shape those ideas into an essay. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring back the Insight Reflector, one of the original Web-and-Flow activity formats.

Welcome to: “Giving Thanks in Divisive Times, 2019” a new interactive reflective writing activity I’ve just created and posted as a free download. The “Insight Reflector” is a scaffolded writing activity that prompts students to explore related Web sites and to engage in reflective thinking and writing. Here’s a brief walk-though of the activity.


Another New Chapter

Happy Birthday to…


This month I celebrated a birthday, one of the “Big Ones,” and it prompted a fair bit of reflection. After becoming a teacher almost 35 years ago, I’ve enjoyed an interesting and rewarding career in education. For the past 5 years, I’ve worked with two software companies helping schools with curriculum mapping, data analytics and writing. These have been great experiences and align with lots of the software design I’ve done as a consultant since leaving the classroom.

At this stage of my career and life, I want to pursue a new chapter where I can take advantage of everything I’ve learned and have developed some expertise in. A few things are in the works and the exact path should be clearer soon, but for now I want to dig back into some of my favorite lessons and contribute some learning activities. I’ll post everything here, but if you’re keen and not already subscribed, you can join the Updates Newsletter to get special access.

In closing, I spent the month of August in Tucson, Arizona with my sister and her family. After three and a half years being knocked around by Chemo treatments for ovarian cancer, my amazing sister headed to her next adventure. She’s on my mind as take these next steps myself.

Solving the Writing Challenge…

Let Software do what Software Can,
so Teachers do what only Teachers Can

In two preceding posts, I explored the context around evaluating student writing. Specifically, this included the time and effort expended by teachers as well as the role technology could play, and our feelings related to both. This post attempts to move past the hysteria and stagnation to gain some clarity around what we really want.

Our Real Goal

To begin with the obvious and inarguable: we want students to keep getting better at writing.  As apparent as this might seem, we should never lose focus on this goal because it seems to have been lost somewhere between what we know (both research and common sense) and what we do (school-based practices around writing). The realities of the classroom and a crowded curriculum, combined with… fear of change? protecting the status quo? honest regard for the art of writing?  Choose your preferred obstacle… but now, LET’S GET OVER IT.  We need to begin from the clear-eyed acceptance that whatever we’re doing systemically hasn’t worked. State and national results in NAPLAN support this and our own experience highlights that for most schools writing is among the most challenging academic skills to teach and learn.  Thus if we accept the premise that our goal is to improve student writing, and that new approaches are required, what do we do?

Let Software Do…

My mantra, as a devout English teacher, writer and long-time ed tech entity is simple and clear: “Let software do what software can so teachers do what only teachers can.”  Can software analyse student writing as well as a trained teacher in writing?  Of course not.  But everyday we all rely on things that software can do, such as spellcheck our work and facilitate editing. Such functionality is second nature to us. It is also about 30 years old. As quickly as technology has changed in that time, especially in regard to crunching data into profiles, noticing patterns, and comparing disparate bits of data, can’t we imagine that the science of “machine reading texts” has evolved? It has. In little steps. Little, because communicating and language are among the most complex things we humans do.

Moves by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to trial machine reading of students’ NAPLAN writing seems to be a main cause for the recent hysteria.  The argument against this is that no computational reading of a text can critique, let alone notice, such things as irony and poetic intent. Nor can it reward a particularly well-turned phrase. When we humans engage in our “labour of love”, scribbling detailed feedback on students’ papers, we are often looking for just such things. Unfortunately, we inevitably confront repetitious and limited word choice, poorly structured sentences and paragraphs that lack integrity.  Things that we would hope students addressed in earlier drafts of their work. Drafts?

What Software can, so…

Interestingly, it was also 30 years ago that the Writing Process captured the interests of university researchers, writers and teachers.  We noted that “expert writers” did things that “novices” did not, such as pre-writing, drafting, getting feedback, revising and editing for publication.  We recognised truth in the statement that “good writing is re-writing.”  Fast-forward to our present and this wisdom seems to have been squashed by the daily mountain of other tasks every teacher confronts.  Reading and grading the stack of required tasks in a curriculum is burdensome enough; who would ask for more? Thus, how many students at almost any level of schooling engage in regular cycles of drafting, feedback, revision, feedback and polishing?  It’s safe to say, “probably not as many as we’d like” knowing that such approaches not only develop better writing, but, in fact, can develop writers.

Teachers do what only Teachers Can

I suggest that removing some of the burden of the writing process as well as providing rich analytics and resources related to each teacher’s students is where technology can help.  The fact that software can’t help developing writers craft ironic, poetic or poignant prose, doesn’t mean that it can’t help them with word choice, the mechanics of sentences or more sophisticated paragraphing and text structures.  The way I see it, software can help students take ownership of their writing to the extent that when they submit their work to teachers, it represents their best efforts and warrants critical assessment. Again: “let software do what software can, so teachers do what only teachers can.”

In another article, we will explain in greater detail some of the analytic approaches we’re designing into our writing software at Literatu.  A fair amount of this falls into the category of “secret sauce” so we won’t divulge too much, but enough I hope to inspire your interest in joining a group of teachers try out our beta version.


source image from Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/5GSBaB
cc license 2.0

Age of the Assistant – FANGST or Friend?

In the last post, I juxtaposed my past as a dedicated English teacher with the last decades’ amazing changes in technology. The reason for pairing these two is that while technologies have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, its impact on helping develop better writers has been negligible.  This post therefore sets the scene for how these two worlds can finally sync up.


Wall Street has an acronym for the powerhouses of the new digital era: FANG, which stands for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.  Interesting, isn’t it: the bite that this nomenclature suggests?  Thinking about technology’s encroachment into human experience, I tend to include Siri (with her personal assistant peers) and Tesla because of the new era of artificial intelligence they present. There’s more to think about regarding these companies and their impact on human existence, but the rapid and fundamental changes they bring to daily life understandably raise our collective level of “FANGST” (technology induced angst).

As different as they are, these FANGST technologies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Siri and Tesla) have two main things in common.  First, they provide services in such powerful ways that they seem to verge on magic.  This magic comes from Big Data and the algorithmic machine learning that happens behind the scenes.  The second aspect in common is that such rapid change always stirs anxiety.  It was true for the Luddites two hundred years ago and our elders last century when electricity, the horseless carriage and flying machines redefined human life.

Besides the shared anxiety that comes with such rapid changes, our current variation has its own bitter-sweet flavour: sweet in that we all easily gain more of what we want (anywhere, anytime), but bitter when we’re reminded by the media buzz that such Artificial Intelligence, personal assistants and automations will replace lots of our jobs.  In the area of technology and student writing, the media buzz has taken a particular slant…

Fear and Grading in the age of FANGST

Because overall results in student writing have shown a flat line and backward trend, one aspect that’s getting a lot of attention in Australia is the use of computer software to evaluate student writing.  For decades, researchers and software companies have explored this area from many perspectives, including computer science, linguistics and writing theory.  The research and approaches go by many names and often become highly charged. For example, in our current debate, it’s no surprise that what researchers refer to as the science of Natural Language Processing (NLP), the media whips up hysteria suggesting it’s an invasion of “Robo-Graders” ready to undermine the value of teachers and dilute the art of writing.  Like all technologies, using software to analyse writing is neither inherently good nor bad.  It’s all about what the software is truly capable of analysing and how this approach is used. This is true about the many technologies we’ve already built into our lives…

Our Friendly Assistants

Each of us have already made peace with many of the assistants new technologies provide.  We choose when we want software to help and when we don’t.  We also choose the kind of help we want from software.  For example, we’d rather have software do the mind-numbing aspects, those that are not intrinsically motivating or are prone to our human error.  We’re also pretty happy when software suggests possibilities based on crunching data that we know is there, but can’t see or access.

Do we want to drive into a new city without GPS?  Do we want to plan a trip without the Web? Do we want to chat with friends using Morse code?  Do we want students to write essays using stone tablets and chisels?  And if we recognise that students become better writers by writing more and more often, do we want teachers to read thousands more assignments?  How is this fair when their colleagues don’t?  Of course we want some technologies to help us.  So let’s begin with a commitment to be reasonable and use what works to further the goals we have.

Which is the topic of the next post:  Letting Software Do What Software Can


The Next Era of Essay Evaluation: In the Beginning….

Personal Snapshot: 1995

In 1995, I transitioned from English teacher to Web-based Educator.  At the time, I calculated that in nearly a decade of classroom teaching, I’d graded over 10,000 student essays.  A conservative estimate is that this equated to 145 eight-hour days of unpaid work – call it a labour of love – because I was dedicated to not merely giving students a grade, but providing detailed comments at the word, sentence and paragraph level.

Wiping away the misty-eyed idealism of a young teacher, I have to admit that the rushed average of seven minutes I put into each essay was probably more time than my loveable but other-focused students put into reading my comments. And probably than using my comments to improve their texts and develop as more expert writers.  It’s no wonder that I experience a visceral hair-raising akin to a horror movie when I think about grading stacks of essays…

Clearly it’s not sustainable or fair to ask some teachers to give up such unpaid time when colleagues in other subjects don’t evaluate of student writing. So is it any surprise that student performance in writing is a worry?

At the same time, in another part of the ….

Interestingly, at this same time, a new era was just dawning with a crazy thing called the World Wide Web, and in particular, a crazier upstart company was taking the marketplace by storm even as it lost money every quarter: Amazon.  We all know what’s happened with Amazon and its amazing success, but it’s important to highlight what’s powered this success.  It’s not lower prices or better advertising, the old-fashioned approaches to building a business, but algorithms.

Jeff Bezos and his team understood that understanding its customers – at a new, more granular level – was the path to their success.  Some readers might remember the early first fruits of this data profiling that, because you bought one book, the Web site offered some pretty lame suggestions based on, “others who’ve bought this book also bought…”

But the code has gotten better and we’ve become accustomed to gaining the benefit of algorithmic recommendations.  So we do look at what others did buy; we appreciate Google’s tailored search results and Facebook’s channelled news feeds; we consult TripAdvisor for hotels and restaurants; and we’ve come to rely on Apps, personalised maps, streamed music and videos to enhance our lives.  We’ve gone from the World Wide Web, social media and phone-based Internet to enter fully into The Age of the Assistants! (coming soon!)


images from WikiCommons:


A Big Change for Tom

What a glorious new beginning!

Back in 2014 I wrote a similar post at a time of transition. Today opens a new chapter in the unfolding story of how a high school English teacher from California morphs into a Web-based educator and contributor to the next era of education.  To re-cap, earlier parts of the journey included a fellowship at San Diego State University where we developed the WebQuest model, then a move to Australia and time as a Web developer and Ed Tech consultant with plenty of writing, software design and keynoting…  until I “got my first real job” since teaching when I joined Hobsons in 2014.  Although I explored positions in school leadership and returning to consulting, it was clear that the exact job didn’t matter so long as I was:

  • using all my skills
  • working on a great team
  • making a difference in education

Things clicked when I met the leadership team at Hobsons Edumate:

From Edumate …

For the past 2 + years I’ve really loved working with the great team at Hobsons’ Edumate.  As much as I’ve enjoyed this shift from the sometimes lonely life of an independent consultant, that fact that the Edumate suite also includes modules for attendance, enrolment, finance, and calendaring means that my passion for improving teaching and learning must be balanced with the overall needs of Edumate’s clients. I got and fully supported this. Those times I was able to harness the development team to work on the curriculum aspects of the software, I felt as though I was contributing – yet while other development needs rightly took precedence, I sometimes felt I wasn’t having the impact I hoped for. Recently the name “Literatu” began popping up with both current and prospective schools, so we decided to meet up…

To Literatu!

What I saw so impressed me that my curiosity was piqued and before long we’d kicked around ideas and found that my obsession with richer teaching and learning matched nicely with the powerful analytical insights provided within a very slick and user-friendly platform.  However, more than the software, I was very impressed with the Literatu leadership – Mark Stanley and Lidija Loridon. They definitely understand assessment, analytics, user interface and what schools need to turn data into insights.  Because this is only the first day on the job, of course there is a lot I don’t know (yet look forward to learning — which is a big part of the excitement!).  In the coming months (and years) I will share more about the power of this technology to humanise teaching and learning as I dig into it and we evolve it.  In particular I am (delightfully) tasked with helping schools and their teachers get early wins analysing their data and then build a plan where they nurture a culture of continuous improvement informed by their own unique goals and processes coupled with powerful data analytics. Look for more posts, Webinars and professional learning and consulting to support this journey into the future.  

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