Sunday, October 22, 2023

Getting outside with Write Out 2023

Red Butte Canyon. Photo by me
Every year in mid-October the National Writing Project and the National Park Service sponsor Write Out, ​​”a free two-week celebration of writing, making, and sharing inspired by the great outdoors.” This is the last day of Write Out which ran from October 8-22 this year.

Back when I was in high school I would have done anything to get outside, but it’s strange now to think about how many years have gone by since I did that as a teacher. Over the past couple of years I’ve rediscovered the joys of writing and reading outdoors. For all the bad that came out of the Covid pandemic (and there are too many to mention here), one of the good things was the imperative to take students outside. Because we had to socially distance during Covid, we found lots of spaces around our small, urban campus to hold classes outdoors. At first learning outside was for their and my own safety, but it’s one of the things that I’ve held onto the past couple of years.

For example my photography students focused on the concept of negative space, which is the empty space around the main subject. It can be something as simple as the sky, a blank wall, a blurred background, or a consistent color. The more you look at photography, art, print design, display advertising, and public service announcements, the more you see the power of placing text in the negative space of an image.

So ostensibly to photograph negative space (but really it was about getting outside on a golden autumn day), we took a field trip up to Red Butte Canyon in Salt Lake City. We chose the Six Word Story prompt that Ranger Cindy describes on the Write Out website.

Six Word Story by Isaac.
Red Butte is just a mile or so from our school, and before long as we turned to look behind us the city disappeared behind the narrow canyon. I’m no stranger to leveraging digital tools in my teaching, but anytime I take classes outside now I think my students and I share a little bit of that same feeling that we had in the canyon – the screens and distractions are left behind while we photograph, read books, and write with pens on paper.

And just last week my senior English class went outside on the National Day on Writing. It was a Friday afternoon where a number of students had checked out for fall sports and other activities, so the students were already a little antsy. I decided to take a page from the NCTE suggested activities for the day and cover the sidewalk with powerful words.

Kudos to NWP and NCTE for reminding me to take it outside.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

PhatGPT - Possibilities for AI in the writing classroom

I've been experimenting with ChatGPT and Open AI with my high school seniors since December 2022. The pitfalls of this new tech have been well documented, so in this post I'll spend more time on some of the potential and possibilities for AI in the writing classroom (in other words, "PhatGPT").

On Jan. 26, 2023 I had a fascinating conversation on a WRITE Center Webinar with Mark Warschauer, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Paul Allison (slides below). 

A little background: I teach high school English and media production, and my first example comes from my class of regular English 9 students. This class has students who struggle with literacy and those who are fluent writers. It’s my first time teaching 9th grade in about 15 years. I’m in my 38th year of teaching, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how AI will impact writing instruction and education in general. 

That said, it’s here, and I want to prepare my students to be aware of this technology as a tool that can improve their thinking and writing, rather than a nifty little gizmo that does their work for them. And I think it’s worth saying that what I talked about in this webinar is rooted in sound writing pedagogy. 

In this first case study, I wanted students to write an essay where they synthesized what they learned while we read a book together and journaled their individual thoughts. My English 9 students and I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, a fictional story narrated by a teenager with autism. It was my first time teaching the book. I supplemented it by watching parts of documentaries about real people with autism spectrum disorder. 

My goal was to have the students read a book but also learn what it’s like to live with ASD, and maybe to be more tolerant of neurodivergent thinkers in general. For my semester exam my students were to write an essay with pen on paper in 75 minutes. 

To be honest I was struggling with creating an essay prompt that would be challenging enough to hold people’s attention but supportive enough for the others And I should add that this was the last exam the Friday before we got out for Christmas vacation. It was the last of four days of semester exams for them, and when the bell rang, it was Christmas vacation. 

 So Paul and I used ChatGPT to help me think this task through. Paul and I started by asking questions in ChatGPT interface about autism, questions that I still had even after learning about it over the past month. It was easy to enter these questions in a text box (see Mark’s slides 7-11).  
Can you summarize the most important things to know about autism? 
What do people who live with autism say about neurodivergence (Temple Grandin, Kim Peek, Ethan Lisi)? 
  • How might I structure an essay about autism, using examples from real people with ASD? 
  • Can you give me an example of the kind of essay you’re describing? 
  • What if I want to include my own experience of people with ASD? 
  • Do you have any suggestions for how I might personalize this essay? 
  • How could I design an essay prompt for this topic that requires examples? 
  •  Can you summarize all this to help me get started? 

I argue that this thinking process was different than just Googling an essay topic about autism and the Curious Incident. In this case, the Chatbot became a thinking partner for me (see slide 32). The chatbot had more interest in the topic than even my most empathetic colleague. 

You can look at the final essay prompt which is linked on the slide. It’s way longer than I originally was thinking when I was struggling with this task, before engaging with ChatGPT. 

If you're a teacher you might be wondering how I had the time for this. There was a lot more up front time but the result was a richer experience for my students. In nearly every case, their writing exceeded my expectations. The students were engaged right up until the bell. 

So back to the issue of how time consuming this was. Well, there’s also a lot of time I put into responding to, and assessing, these essays. All of this time was much more enjoyable than it usually is because of the overall quality of student writing. As I read through their work I found myself saying, “I want to keep on reading!” This doesn’t always happen when I am assessing student work. 

My second example is where I used AI to help my 12th grade AP English Language and Composition students. I've been involved with NWP for a long time, and am a believer in an inquiry-based writing classroom. 

Incidentally, I think an inquiry-based approach to writing instruction makes it less likely that students will plagiarize (Elyse, slide 19). Like in a lot of your classes I want my students to assess the credibility of sources and then to be able to synthesize credible sources into their own original writing. But one of the problems of practice I experience with this kind of approach is making sure that students are accurately summarizing credible sources. 

Just like we do in our classes where we teach students how to assess the credibility of sources, we teachers can write instructions for AI to help our students check for credibility every time before they actually start summarizing an article. So I thought AI could help with this task. 

On slide 33 you'll see an assignment where my students create a post on a website called Youth Voices. What’s different is that on this site they can communicate with AI in a controlled way. To use AI in a powerful way, where the student writers can engage with AI like a thinking partner. The first day back from winter break I had my students write about a story or event from 2022 that was personally significant. Students then wrote summaries of those articles and then compare their summaries with AI summaries. 

An example of one of my students work can be seen on slides 34 and 35

A lot of what teachers worried about when ChatGPT first burst on to the scene was that students wouldn't have to write anymore, bots would do it for them. What's important in all of this experimentation that I've described above is that my students are doing the work first, and AI is being used as a thinking partner. Students still do the work first, and then get feedback from AI. And they use this feedback to improve their writing. This isn’t plagiarism.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Chalk art and trees - #writeout with NWP

Chalk art by me
If you're a teacher looking for an simple outdoor activity that could be adapted for a wide range of ages, here's an idea from the National Writing Project's writeout resources. This year's writeout takes place from October 10-24.

I teach high school but recently I volunteered to teach a writing and photography workshop to 4th graders at a nearby school. Well, I originally planned to do a photography workshop, but with a pandemic at hand it didn't make sense for students to be handing cameras back and forth to each other and to me – so the medium of choice became sidewalk chalk.

Step One, before the workshop

I started by finding out what the students had been learning, and it turned out that they'd been working on poetry (metaphors) and learning about John Muir. 

Step Two, writing activity

We engaged in a writing activity by sharing a quote below, found on a National Park Service page about John Muir
"I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove. Where night found me, there I camped. When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell... I asked the boulders I met, whence they came and whither they were going."
    – John Muir, John of the Mountains

Then we talked about finding poetry in prose. So we brainstormed the following poem based on that Muir quote:
When I discover a new plant, 
I sit down beside it for a minute or a day. 
I make its acquaintance and hear what it has to say.  

Next we had a discussion about how trees "talk" to each other, based on a video by Ranger MacKenzie of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, which can be found on this NWP resource. Depending on the age of your students, you might just use these talking points from the video: 
  • What are acorns? Where do they come from? Who eats them? Acorns are eaten by bears, deer, birds, squirrels, mice, worms. 
  • One mature oak tree can drop over 10,000 acorns in a year 
  • Every 2-5 years oak trees coordinate in an event called masting, where they all drop thousands and thousands of acorns. Some will be buried and forgotten by squirrels, and will grow to be mature oaks. More on masting from the Washington Post.

Discussion question

How can trees talk to each other, even when they are spread apart in a forest for sometimes hundreds of miles? Answer: Tree roots are covered with microscopic fungi that tie trees together so that they can talk to each other. Read this Smithsonian article for a more detailed answer. Fyi, I've summarized key points from the article at the bottom of this post.


Students write a paragraph and then a poem about a real or imagined tree and what they think it would talk about.

Step Three, go outside

Loaded with lots of sidewalk chalk, students go outside and claim one square of a nearby sidewalk. They draw their tree and include at least one sentence of what the tree would say if it could talk. After about a half hour of drawing, we finish with a celebratory gallery walk where the artists discuss their creations and read their words.

Summary of the Smithsonian article mentioned above:
  • Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. 
  •  Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web, 
  • Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, Use the fungi to communicate. 
  • They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.” Scientists call these mycorrhizal networks. The fine, hairlike root tips of trees join together with microscopic fungal filaments to form the basic links of the network, which appears to operate as a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, or perhaps an economic exchange. As a kind of fee for services, the fungi consume about 30 percent of the sugar that trees photosynthesize from sunlight. The sugar is what fuels the fungi, as they scavenge the soil for nitrogen, phosphorus and other mineral nutrients, which are then absorbed and consumed by the trees. 
  • To communicate through the network, trees send chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, which scientists are just beginning to decipher. Edward Farmer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland has been studying the electrical pulses, and he has identified a voltage-based signaling system that appears strikingly similar to animal nervous systems (although he does not suggest that plants have neurons or brains) 
  • Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia has gathered evidence that some plants may also emit and detect sounds, and in particular, a crackling noise in the roots at a frequency of 220 hertz, inaudible to humans. 
  • Trees also communicate through the air, using pheromones and other scent signals. Wohlleben’s favorite example occurs on the hot, dusty savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, where the wide-crowned umbrella thorn acacia is the emblematic tree. When a giraffe starts chewing acacia leaves, the tree notices the injury and emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. Upon detecting this gas, neighboring acacias start pumping tannins into their leaves. In large enough quantities these compounds can sicken or even kill large herbivores.
  • Giraffes are aware of this, however, having evolved with acacias, and this is why they browse into the wind, so the warning gas doesn’t reach the trees ahead of them. If there’s no wind, a giraffe will typically walk 100 yards— farther than ethylene gas can travel in still air—before feeding on the next acacia. Giraffes, you might say, know that the trees are talking to one another. 
  • Trees can detect scents through their leaves, which, for Wohlleben, qualifies as a sense of smell. They also have a sense of taste. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.” 
  • A recent study from Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shows that trees know the taste of deer saliva. “When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad,” he says. “When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.” 
  • Mother trees are the biggest, oldest trees in the forest with the most fungal connections. They’re not necessarily female, but Simard sees them in a nurturing, supportive, maternal role. With their deep roots, they draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. They help neighboring trees by sending them nutrients, and when the neighbors are struggling, mother trees detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly. 
  • One teaspoon of forest soil contains several miles of fungal filaments. 
  • Why do trees share resources and form alliances with trees of other species? Doesn’t the law of natural selection suggest they should be competing? “Actually, it doesn’t make evolutionary sense for trees to behave like resource-grabbing individualists,” she says. “They live longest and reproduce most often in a healthy stable forest. That’s why they’ve evolved to help their neighbors.” 
  • Wohlleben’s first priority is to not be boring, so he uses emotional storytelling techniques. His trees cry out with thirst, they panic and gamble and mourn. They talk, suckle and make mischief.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Less LMS stress: 6 design tips to ease student anxiety

It's no secret that school during Covid has had some big challenges. Studies are finding that remote students are less engaged and experiencing higher levels of pressure, and teachers were feeling more stressed even before the pandemic

One of the things we need to consider is how the design of our learning management systems (LMS) might help reduce student stress and anxiety. Or add to it.

Realizing that a lot of my colleagues around the country are just now entering into a hybrid model of teaching, it's a good time to share what we've learned at Judge Memorial after teaching hybrid since August. Many thanks to @mattpacenza for spearheading this effort. Here are some takeaways:

1. Look at your LMS through their eyes. Some students have difficulty prioritizing what can seem like barrage of information. Whatever LMS you're using, look at the "student view" of the interface often so that you're aware of how things look to your students. They don't see what we see from the "teacher view" mode. Personally when I've looked at the student view of my course page I've too often found it isn't always as intuitive as I've thought. 

2. Use announcements judiciously. Save them for the really important stuff. In the beginning of the year my students were telling me that they were so inundated with messages that they oftentimes missed the really important ones. For example, a whole-class message to remind a class to bring their books tomorrow and a message about the last day to switch classes look pretty similar in an LMS dashboard. 

3. Be really clear whether an assignment is "in-class" work or "homework." The student should be able to glance very quickly at an assignment and know whether it will be done during class, or something that is homework which is due at that time indicated on the assignment.

4. Be deliberate – and consistent – with an assignment's date and time fields. This can help with the issue of whether it is in-class work or homework. If the assignment you create is “in-class work,” then you should consider making it so that assignment isn’t “available” until class starts (separately for each section.) That way, a student doesn’t see that assignment in advance and worry whether something is due or not. It just appears for them once class starts.  

5. Make your assignments due at consistent times and days. Students like routine and like knowing that their work for a certain class is almost always due at similar time. One teacher always has homework due on a certain day of the week, another always has homework due by 10pm on that day's class. This can help them develop good habits.

6. Simplify your course page for your students. The typical LMS has loads of options in the navigation bar that you don't need for your course. Disable them or hide them. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Advice for Back to (hybrid) School

students writing outside
learning outside by me
My school has moved to a hybrid model which started on Monday, August 17. Half of the students attend block classes in person on Monday and Tuesday while the others attend online, vice-versa on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is advisory, office hours, etc.

I just got off a Zoom meeting with my advisory students who are seniors. When asked how things are going so far, here's what they had to say.

Those who have attended in-person classes already this year said they prefer it to the completely online approach we did last spring. There are things they're adjusting to for sure, like wearing masks at all times and social distancing. One student said all she wanted to do was give her best friend a big hug when she first saw her but couldn't. Another lamented not being in the same cohort with most of his friends. One-way traffic in hallways and stairs, signage everywhere – a lot is different this year compared to any of the other years I've taught. But one constant for the in-person cohort was that they were actually happy to be back in school.

If you're situation is like mine and you're doing a hybrid approach blending online and in-person students, my remote students mentioned some things that are worth considering.

  • Find out quickly who is having issues with the technology. It's pretty easy to tell who's not in attendance online. Prioritize supporting those students. (Easier said than done, I know).
  • Create quality content. Record one of your first sessions, and then be honest with yourself. Would you want to watch an hour of it?
  • Pay attention to the audio and video quality of your conference. Routinely check in with the online students to see if they can actually see and hear what's going on. 
  • Make the most of in-person time. One of the common themes my students have is that they actually missed being at school, and a big part of that is physically being together (even if it means being six feet apart). If in hybrid mode, balance your attention. But when you dismiss the online students, be fully present for each other.
  • Seek out video conference mentors. Some of the newest teachers in my school are the ones who are using Zoom most efficiently. We tend to think of mentors as seasoned veterans, but especially now that isn't the case.
  • Simplify the tech. At the very least just make sure you can stream the class and that the remote students can see and hear adequately. For example, having more than one camera in the room is a nice idea, but if you're spending an inordinate amount of time trying to manage the remote technology, simplify. 
  • Engage the online students. Some of them mentioned feeling more like a spectator in some classes. 
  • Honor the students' time. Do we really want students staring at a screen all day? If we're not actively engaging them in an activity, do they really need to be in the conference?  Students appreciated the teachers who delivered content first, then assigned a task for them to do by the next in-person class.
  • Flip it (a little bit). I don't think we should flip all classes, but my students mentioned that it made sense for a class like music where the teacher records a demonstration for students to watch online and then perform in person. As my student told me: "at home you're learning; in school you're working."

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Covid journal #2: Lessons learned from making media during a pandemic

Mad World by Cam

During the coronavirus shutdown I learned a few things about how some students thrive in online settings. A lot of the success I saw in these students can be attributed to two things – leveraging the affordances of digital networks and self-regulation. In this post I'll talk about mainly the positives I learned from my students after interviewing them at the end of the school year.

Location, location, location

Where the learning happens changes things. When my school went from a traditional face-to-face (f2f) classroom to a completely online setting in mid-March, I wasn’t sure how my media production class was going to go – if at all. In all the years I've taught this class the physical space was the center of making and learning. That’s where all the cameras, computers, and applications were.

Then there’s the community aspect – the refining of story ideas that takes place through class discussion, the collaboration between peers as they coordinate filming, lighting, and audio for an in-person interview. And then there are the subjects of the stories themselves. Typically the content of high school media programs are primarily about and for the people who are in the building.

So if there’s no “school” per se, there’d be no product, right?

But then something unexpected happened. A number of the students started producing work that in a lot of ways was more compelling than what they made in the three quarters prior, work that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened in my f2f classroom.

Leveraging digital networks

One of the reasons I still love teaching is that I've been fortunate to learn from others through digital networks for about 20 years now – connecting on Teachers Teaching TeachersYouth Voices, and through the National Writing Project, for example. Another vital piece of my professional learning network is PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs who came through with resources like Making Sense of Coronavirus and Conducting Virtual Interviews. I talk about this in detail in this Media Education Webinar, but to summarize one of my main points in that webinar, having this resource ready to go as I navigated uncharted waters lightened the cognitive load for me as a teacher, and knowing that other students around the country were also doing similar stories motivated my students.

One of the initial problems my class faced was when students had to figure out how to make their own equipment work.  In my f2f classroom I know how to use all the equipment and if students don't figure things out on their own, I'm there to show them. But when students had to use their own equipment, they were using tools and applications that i Never had. 

Other students became resources for each other. Instead of me demonstrating how to use the equipment in the classroom, our online classes turned into troubleshooting sessions, where I found myself emphasizing how people were making things work, rather than dwelling on the all the things that were going wrong.

Figuring things out on their own

I don't want to minimize equity issues, because admittedly some of my students struggled with access to computers and little to no wi-fi at home. There are systemic educational issues that have to be addressed if we want a healthy economy and an electoral system that works for everybody. But that's another discussion. And how my community supported struggling students during Covid-19 is something I'll take up in another post. Right now I'm focusing on the things that worked this past spring, and one of the themes that ran through a number of the interview responses was that students came up with creative ways to solve problems on their own.

For example, Cam couldn't get his older-model HP computer to read video files shot on his iPhone 6. I did some searching for resources but in the end, through sheer persistence, he figured it out on his own. Watching his video I think his success, at least in part, is consistent with what Nora Fleming writes about in the article, Why are some kids thriving during remote learning – self-pacing and getting enough sleep. From a research standpoint the behavior described in the video supports Zimmerman's observations about the cyclical process of self-regulation in chapter 2 in the Handbook of Self-regulation.

When asked, a lot of the students mentioned how they learned a lot about their own technology through this experience. Sam said: "I learned that virtual interviews can actually be as easy as conducting them in person. Thanks to apps like Zoom or FaceTime, virtual in-person interviews are easy to conduct." Other students used their gaming systems like Game Bar, or OBS. "In my situation, I didn't have access to any video or audio editing software, but I was able to conduct interviews over the phone, and use their transcripts to write a story.”

Expanding world views

Something else happened this past spring; the scope of our stories became more worldly. Some of the students produced a series of interviews about how coronavirus had impacted teens around the world like in ChileNorthern Ireland, and England. Sarah interviewed an international student at our school who left for her home in Korea as soon as our state's schools went completely online. 

When asked what they learned about coronavirus from doing stories from an international perspective, some noted similarities ("I learned how people around the world are in the same situation as I am, unable to leave the house or hang out with friends"), while others noted contrasts: “I learned how differently other countries handled the pandemic, especially in comparison to the United States. I also learned that not every place went into a full lockdown.”

Other students conducted virtual interviews with adults about issues that affect millions of people. Katie interviewed a representative from HEAL Utah, a local environmental non-profit about the obvious benefits of reduced commuting on air quality but also learned that the pandemic's effects on the environment were more complex than what she was seeing. Another student interviewed a member of the US Olympic Committee for a story on the cancelled 2020 Summer Games in Japan.
"I learned about ways to make an interview look extremely professional despite being across the country. I realized that even if we do go back to school next year we won't be limited to interviewing those in Utah."

The challenges ahead

Some of what my students had to say warmed my heart, like this one: "I learned that even though many of us have been struggling, we have adapted to new ways of life and learned to appreciate all of our blessings. People are more forgiving, grateful, and willing to go out of their way to see the people they love. I think our world has learned the importance of being proactive instead of reactive, in order to keep a pandemic like this from happening again."

That sentiment would make for a happy ending, but I can't close without recognizing the struggles. While some of my students thrived online, others floundered. And I'm left wondering how we can make school work better for all our students.

Too many of our students are feeling like what this student of mine wrote:
"I wake up every day around 1 P.M. I usually fall asleep around 4 in the morning. The virus has taken away everything I love, any way for me to make money or see my friends, and has indirectly caused my grades to tank. I’m stuck at home doing homework and sleeping in a weird, unhealthy pattern. I go through the rest of my life like a drone, just waiting to get my next hit of a popular movie or critically acclaimed T.V. show. Some would say my mindset is unhealthy, and I totally agree, but there isn’t much else I can do at this point. All aspects of my life have been touched by the virus, all in a negative way. I’m less healthy, school is more difficult (especially because teachers don’t know how much online work is too much), and I can’t see or interact with my friends. I’ve never wished so badly that I had school. I’d give anything to be back in a classroom, understanding the material and learning with my friends."

Even before Covid-19 a lot of our students had experienced trauma. In a recent episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers Richard Koch had a lot to say about how to teach in the age of stress and trauma. His book, The Mindful Writing Workshop, is a wonderful starting place.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Accessibility: COVID-19 journal #1

Screenshot of one of my classes (unfortunately a few missed).
Due to coronavirus, my school went completely online on March 16. Luckily we saw the possibility of going online about the week before we actually did, so I was able to brainstorm with my students about ways we thought we could still keep learning from a distance. My school uses Canvas LMS, and one of the things I tested with my students was the Conference feature, which I never really had a use for since we always met in a traditional face-to-face school setting.

As we went online another thing I realized was that, although I've taught online and hybrid courses before, I still had this nagging feeling that I wasn't utilizing enough of the affordances of this new online environment. So I joined the MAET Mini-MOOC: Remote Teaching. Turns out I've got a lot to learn.

One of the things I've learned more about is making our online work more accessible to everyone. Introduction to Web Accessibility by WC3 is one of the many great resources I've come across. Just as curb cuts benefit people in wheelchairs and also people pushing baby carriages or dragging luggage, accessibility online also benefits all users. including transcripts or using subtitles with our videos not only benefits people with auditory disabilities, but also works for people who want to watch a video but are in an environment where it's best not to listen to audio.

As encouraged in the MAET Mini-MOOC, I'm implementing accessibility features like text styles and heading styles in the transcript below this video I put together for anyone who might want to use the Conference feature in Canvas.

Using Conferences in Canvas

Starting a new conference call 

Click on the Conference link. Click on the New Conference.   First decide who's going to be in on this. Is it the whole class or just some members. Think about whether you want to enable recording for this, for posterity or for students who won’t be able to be there. Let’s call this "Conference test" and let's think about how long we're going to make this. In this case I'm just going to make it 30 minutes and that seems like enough, so I'll click Update. Then I get the screen where I can click Start and we've just started the conference right now.

About the audio 

The first screen you will see is how you want to join the audio. I always am going to choose the microphone. But realize the students see this screen too so that you may only want them to listen only or use a microphone. And realize they can also join using your phone. I'm going to click allow for my microphone. Then there's an Echo test. In this case I could hear my own voice so it was echoing, so I’m going to click Okay it was echoing. Then after that we're ready to go. The next thing you notice is there's a mute button and unmute button. That's really important because I think we want the students and ourselves not to pick up distracting background audio.

About the chat 

Next you'll notice there's a chat that's taking place there. That is a public chat and you can see the students are filling up the chat with their wisdom, and we could use that in a lot of different ways. These students were just testing this feature out for me, FYI they are a lot more articulate than that.

Set your status 

You can also see that if you click on your own avatar you can set your status. There are things you can do like raise your hand. You can signal that you're away from the computer for a second, you can say that you're confused, or sad, or happy or things like that which seems like useful information for people in the rest of the conference to know about you.

Shared notes 

Another feature you'll notice over on the left side, below messages and above users, is the shared notes feature, which I have to say is a little distracting at times because everybody can write in that document at the same time. So sometimes they’re overwriting each other. If you're wondering how many notes that panel can hold a student tested it and found that the entire script of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith actually can fit in there. So there doesn't seem to be a limit to the number of notes students can add or teachers can add to the shared notes.


You and your students can see each other, so you can turn on your webcam and share that. I am turning on my webcam right now and the students can also join so if you want to be able to see them, it’s possible.

Screen sharing 

The last feature that I think is really useful is to be able to share my screen. In this case let's say I wanted to give some feedback to a student who has a piece of writing. I can use screen sharing with them and I could in Canvas annotate the document, or we can just have a discussion about it. Sharing your screen is another feature that's worthwhile.

End meeting 

Now it's time to end the meeting, so I'm going to go up to the top right of the screen, and click End Meeting. I'm going to say yes. The last thing that the students can do, and you can do, is give feedback on the meeting, so you can all give some stars and some comments.