Zen-ification of a PowerPoint Presentation

Looking through my Power Points from last year (and this) I realize that on many occasions I organized them more for me than my students. I wanted to make sure my students could see and hear the information they need to know. And I want to remember what I’m supposed to talk about 🙂 But after reading suggestions from Garr Reynolds about Presentation Zen, I now realize my good intentions of providing ‘visual’ information (in the form of text) may have actually been overloading my students. Garr Reynolds uses cognitive research to support his belief that less text is better. In his document Presentation Zen: How to Design & Deliver Presentations Like a Pro, Mr. Reynolds summarizes key findings of cognitive scientists regarding the ‘multimedia learning theory’ as

Multimedia Effect. Narration with pictures (visuals) is better than narration alone.
Modality Principle. People learn better when words are presented as narration rather than text.
Redundancy Principle. People learn better from narration & graphics rather than narration, graphics, & text.
Coherence Principle. People learn better when extraneous visual material is excluded.

Now, I am assuming (and hoping) that this applies as well to the middle school students I work with and that by following Mr. Reynolds advice, I can increase the engagement of my students with information that I present to them by changing the format and style of my presentations.

Although a lot of Mr. Reynolds information regarding Presentation Zen seems to be aimed at business professionals, I instantly saw the applications to education. His tips for organization and preparation, slides, and delivery really helped me reflect on what I have been doing and what I need to change. Over the last year I have seen many well done Zen-style presentations both live (Learn2Talks at Learning 2.012 conference in Beijing) and online (TED Talks) and have a good grasp of what they should look and sound like. So I wanted to focus on organization and preparation. I decided I wanted to revamp a text/information heavy PowerPoint about Literature Circles I created for my class last year. The Presentation Zen tip that stood out most to me was “Start with the End in Mind”.

What was the purpose of the presentation? Most of the information was going to be on a handout I would give the students and the other part of presentation was instructions for practicing the roles they would be doing in the literature circles. Did that all have to be in the presentation?

My New Purpose: to promote inquiry and discussion about the purpose of literature circles. And I had to keep in mind the purpose of the literature circles. I want to students to engage in conversations about the book. To get deep into the book and then go outward with their thinking.

I decided to go simple with three questions:

1. What is the purpose of a literature circle?
2. What are our responsibilities (roles) in literature circle?
3. What kind of questions will we need to promote discussion?

With this in mind I started looking for quotes and images that would support these ideas. I wanted to find images that would encourage thinking and discussion. My presentation was not going to be a presentation of information but I tool for discussion as we prepared for literature circles.

Of course, I was multitasking and found a SlideShare Presentation Skills for Teachers (based on Presentation Zen) by Simon Jones that reinforced the direction I was taking in Zen-ifying my presentation.

  • We are hardwired to understand images. Going visual improves communication.
  • Use your image to draw out your students’ high order thinking skills
  • A good images allows students to think, wonder and reflect on an issue

This gave me confidence that I was on the right track. I quickly found three quotes that I could use and then I entered the critical phase of finding images. I was already using compfight.com to find images so I was familiar with the trial and error (of keywords) of finding the ‘right’ photographs. I was even able to reuse an image of an iceberg from a previous lesson on culture. I thought this would be a great way to make a connection to something familiar and the concept we used with culture (visible and hidden aspects of culture) worked perfectly with the concept of deep and shallow questions.

I found the handout regarding the roles of Literature Circles and decided it would be given to students after the presentation. Information on Deep and Shallow questions would be developed as a class in an activity in follow up sessions.

After all the reflection and simplification and reorganization, here are the results of the transformation.

Original Literature Circles PowerPoint

Zen-ified Literature Circles Presentation

Lit Circle Roles (handout)

Garr Reynolds summarizes the combination of Zen and effective presentations (with a very Zen perspective) saying,

PowerPoint culture causes both audiences and presenters to suffer. And content suffers too. The root of the suffering is attachment to old PowerPoint habits and misunderstandings about how best to connect to an audience. Lose your attachment to the “normal” way PowerPoint is used and lose poor presentation habits to move to a higher level of effectiveness.

By creating my own Zen presentation I not only produced a better visual communication tool to use with my students but I’ve also readjusted my view on what I need to do to connect with my audience (my students). I need to engage them with visuals (not text) and conversation. Keep it simple, beautiful and balanced.

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Looking at Infographics with a Critical Eye

Infographics: Instant Information
If you’ve ever picked up a copy of the newspaper USA Today in the last several years, you would have probably seen at least one infographic even if you only looked at the front page. It is usually one of the first things I look at whenever I see a copy. I love how I can instantly get a nugget of information from an interesting visual. Rocco Penn describes the appeal of infographics,

The advantage that visualizations have over spreadsheets and articles is that they can present a message in a way that is more easily and enjoyably understood. Data is inherently boring to most if not put into digestible chunks and infographics allow for that to happen.

USA Today has been using them for years and now we’re seeing an explosion of infographics on the web. And now anyone make their own infographics (or data visualizations) and share them with the world. Awesome! But on the other hand, anyone can make and share their own infographic. Stop right there! The appeal of infographics is also what makes them potentially suspect. Chikodi Chima points this out in his article “How Infographics Jumped the Shark”.

 The Internet is a visual environment, and because infographics are visual before all else, even bad ones, they fit perfectly with the way we use the Internet. The human eye can take in much greater volume of information, more quickly than can our other senses. But this has also made infographics prime targets for overuse or abuse.

Taking a Closer Look
As teachers we are constantly reminding our students to be critical of websites, especially when gathering information for research. Students are often taken in by professional looking sites that are actually fake or misleading on purpose. Have you seen the site for the Pacific Tree Octopus? Or the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division (DMRD)? And if you’ve never seen The Onion (America’s Finest New Source), you are missing out on blatant, but very well produced, misrepresentations of information.

If anyone can create and share an infographic we must look at them with a critical eye and teach our students to do the same. Susan Brooks-Young refers to this in her article on tech activities for higher order thinking skills stating,

Infographics…are useful because they reduce lots of content into a readily understood format. However, it’s easy to use charts, graphs, and other visual representations to distort facts. The ability to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate infographics is a critical media literacy skill.

As with other sources, I will ask my students to consider

  1. Who created this?
  2. What is their purpose? (to entertain, inform, persuade?)
  3. What are their sources of data?
  4. Are those sources reliable?

I believe numbers 3 and 4 are the most challenging. Occasionally, you can find infographics with enough information to make a decision on reliability, however I have found infographics without any sources listed. And some of those that do list sources just list website home pages and not links to specific information. I think this will lead to good discussions with my students about how they use and analyze infographics. It will also help frame our expectations when I have my students create their own infographics.

Infographics are Fun, Too
Of course, we can also point out that some infographics are created for entertainment purposes and are fun to explore. Even visual.ly, which is an online space for creating and showcasing infographics, pokes some fun at infographics in its “Diagrams Rule: A Satirical Look at Infographics” which includes the following description,

A visual representation of data which ideally provide an instantly understandable representation of that data. Does this form of informational media make information more clear or does it muddle relevant data into an easy-to-understand yet potentially inaccurate site-bite? This easy-to-understand yet potentially inaccurate infographic explores infographic trends.

Diagrams Rule: A Satirical Look at Infographics

You could also have fun with REI’s Zombie Survival Gear and 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Tech Edition infographics, just to mention a few.

Additional Resources
The Best Infographics of 2011 So Far (Larry Ferlazzo
Creating Infographics with Students (Langwitches)

A Case Study In How Infographics Can Bend The Truth
The Do’s and Don’ts of Infographic Design

Are Infographics Ruining the Web?
Infographics Are Broken. We Can Do Better.
Evil Effects of Bad Infographics


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Images in the Classroom: From an Iceberg to Trees

Classroom Situation

Last year, I noticed that many of my grade 6 students had to often be prompted and reminded to write well-developed paragraphs independently. I would often get paragraphs (both in multi-paragraph assignments and in journal entries) that sometimes include a topic sentence, but often lacked details and explanation.  I pointed out that students would use terms like “stuff” and “things” or talk about how something was “interesting” but not give much information about why or how it was “interesting”. Even after showing them exemplars and scaffolding longer writing assignments, I was still wasn’t seeing huge improvement in several students. Then came the iceberg…

During the last Social Studies unit of the year, we used some lessons from World Wise (Peace Corps) regarding culture. One of the lessons included comparing culture to an iceberg. The premise being that, like an iceberg, we often see only part of a culture and there are parts we can only guess about because they are unseen (values and beliefs). I noticed that the students really responded to the image of an iceberg and were able to talk about culture using this analogy. They were even able to create their own images and analogies to show their understanding of culture. Then I thought about giving them analogy for well-developed writing and the image that came to mind was a tree. I found several images of trees in different conditions and stages of growth. I also included images of a weed and an ivy covered wall. I showed these images to students and asked them which image represented good writing and students picked the images of the full grown trees and were able to tell me characteristics of good writing in terms of a tree. They talked about how writing has specific topics (like the limbs of the tree) and details (the branches and leaves) and that it is organized (like the symmetry of the tree) and that it is not all over the place like a wall of ivy growing in different in directions. I was really excited about how they were connecting with the images and communicating their understanding of good writing. However, this took learning experience took place towards the end of the year and I wasn’t able to really build onto the lesson for long.

Round Two

In the new school year I have a new group of grade 6 students and I am seeing the same issue in their writing as I did with my students last year. They’ve already experienced the “Culture is Like an Iceberg” lesson (we moved the lesson to the beginning of the year) and responded to the analogy well and were even able to produce their own images to demonstrate their understanding. I now have the opportunity to introduce the tree/writing analogy to students much earlier in the year and to see if it has any impact on improved writing. I’m banking on the research that says visuals can have a much bigger impact on our memory than text. According to the Brain Rule Rundown , “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”

To support my plan, I considered the guidelines for using images in learning provided by Terri Johnson in her “Visual Literacy” presentation.

1.     Images must specifically illustrate the targeted content and match the instructional goal.
Considering the targeted content and goal is abstract (good, quality writing) I feel like the tree is a good analogy to address the characteristics of the types of writing the students should be producing.

2.     Ensure that students have a meaningful interaction with images or video.
In addition introducing and discussing the images, I will also have students draw their own tree with notes in their writing notebooks. We will also create an ‘anchor chart’ with the image of the tree with class generated notes about good writing to display. This way we have the image to refer back to and a reminder of what is expected in their writing. I will even encourage students to come up with or find their own image to help them remember the characteristics of a well written paragraph. 

3.     Make sure the images and videos supplement your good instruction, not replace it.
Of course, I will continue to provide instruction and guidance in writing but I am hoping the tree analogy will support the instruction as a visual cue to students.

4.     Model appropriate use and attribution of copyrighted digital images and videos.
I am now expecting this from my students so I also model it.

I have always been conscience about using images in my teaching but have usually used it as a short term solution to convey understanding of vocabulary and ideas. Now, I am interested in seeing how a simple image might transform my students’ writing.


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Assessing the Look of “Digital Journeys”


When I first starting using WordPress blogs for both my COETAIL course and my classroom I experienced stress in trying to figure out what would be the best theme to use. I wanted to show some personality by finding something beyond the default theme but would also become intimidated by some of themes and unfamiliar terms and options. And if I did like a theme occasionally it would require some HTML coding to make changes and I just didn’t have the experience or time to figure that out. I would just end up going back to the default theme.


When I reviewed the assignment to redesign a blog or website I first started thinking about how to update my own COETAIL blog. I remember spending quite a bit of time last spring trying to figure out the best theme for my blog…well, at least one that appealed to me. I now realize I seemed to be concerned with how “Comments” displayed and what colors showcased my header (which is my own photograph). I now realize that may have not been the best focus. Brandon Jones’ simple statement about visual hierarchy reminded me that my blogs should be designed for my intended audience.

Good visual hierarchy isn’t about wild and crazy graphics or the newest Photoshop filters; it’s about organizing information in a way that’s usable, accessible, and logical to the everyday site visitor.

Keeping that in mind and reassessing my COETAIL blog, I think my widgets and side bar are in a logical and accessible order. However, I could make a few changes so the hyperlinks are not such a glaring orange and consider if the white text on black background is the best for those who visit my blog.


Brandon Jones also reminded me that how I organize the text in my blog impacts how long my readers will stick with reading it. Basically, Jones states that if viewers are given “a massive block of information, chances are that 99 out of 100 people won’t bother to read it…Because most people are inherently visual thinkers, not data processors.” Usability expert Jakob Nielsen supports this outlook with the idea of information foraging. Michael Agger sums up Nielsen’s idea of information foraging in this article “Lazy Eye: How we read online”:

Humans are informavores. On the Internet, we hunt for facts. In earlier days, when switching between sites was time-consuming, we tended to stay in one place and dig. Now we assess a site quickly, looking for an ‘information scent.’ We move on if there doesn’t seem to be any food around.

I’ve experienced this myself in looking at various blog posts and articles for both academic and personal interests. Although I know the author has spent time and effort to produce this piece of writing, I am aware I have many other choices and find myself moving on quickly if I can’t get a sense of what I’m going to read in a short amount of time. I have to remember that this is happening to me as well. Most of my reflections can be quite extensive pieces of texts. One way to help my audience is to make better use of subtitles (as I am doing with this reflection). Just as I teach students to skim titles and subtitles before reading a text, I should expect that visitors to my blog are doing the same and quickly making a decision whether or not to delve deeper into my writing.


At the end of his article, Brandon Jones gives a simple assessment to test visual hierarchy of a website or project. It basically comes down to one question.

Does the design emphasize what is important to the viewers?

Brandon Jones concludes with regards to the “tsunami of visual information” we regularly encounter…

…as a result, people nowadays are hyper-sensitive to visual hierarchy. This is especially the case on the web where students have proven that regular web surfers have learned to ‘scan’ content innately; automatically seeking information that is relevant to their interests and discarding/disregarding information that doesn’t. Because of this, becoming a master of visual hierarchy isn’t optional, it’s mandatory.

So when I consider what theme to use and which widgets to put where and how to organize my information and writing I have to keep in mind my audience. Considering the purpose of my COETAIL blog and my potential audience, my goal is to keep my blog visually basic (and calm) and well-organized. And not matter what types of blogs or websites I set up in the future, whether it is promoting a new band or setting up a handmade jewelry business, I will make sure I focus on my potential audience and how the visual design will invite them in and encourage them to connect.


After perusing the available themes on WordPress I decided to try out the EvoLve theme. I thought the layout was easy to navigate and I liked how the side bar used color to separate the different widgets. Would love any feedback on the changes….





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Course 2 Final Project: Acceptable Use Policies

AUPs = one small piece of a much bigger puzzle

I joined forces with Michelle Laudermilk for our final project. Michelle and I are both the lone COETAILers at our schools right now and were able to connect through the COETAIL site. Besides being solo COETAILers and being at schools in private international schools in Guandong Province, China (me in Shekou, Michelle in Guangzhou) our school situations are at different stages in regards to technology. My school (Shekou International School) already has quite a bit of technology and equipment available to our students. We have one to one laptops in grades 7-12 and will be converting to a Mac school over the next 4 or 5 years. We do have an AUP that was written seven years ago when the school was much smaller and other IT documents. Michelle’s school (Guangzhou Nashu International School), on the other hand, has limited computer access (computer lab) at this time and Michelle is in the process of creating a complete IT Policy and Procedures (including AUPs) document for her school.

Michelle and I were able to converse using Skype and had some great conversations about AUPs and IT policy in general. We shared links and documents that we had found and Michelle shared her experience and knowledge from working with IT in the business world in the United States. Some questions we came up with and discussed included:

What do we use for guidance in developing an AUP?
How do we set boundaries regarding AUPs yet be flexible and comprehensive?
How do we assess the quality of an AUP?
How is it enforced?
The focus of an AUP tends to be on student behavior. How about staff?
Should the goal be to integrate IT policies/expectations into the general school behavior expectations (i.e. code of conduct) instead of having it as a separate piece?

After a few lengthy Skype conversations, we decided to organize our project around recommended components of an AUP and taking a look at my school’s current AUP and the one Michelle was creating for her school. We put these into a Google Doc to show our suggestions and comments regarding the components and the text. [You’ll need to go to the Google Doc to see our comments. They don’t appear on the embedded document below] I found several sites that referred to the recommendations of the NEA (National Education Association/US) and Michael D. King’s Developing Acceptable Use Policy document and from there developed a list of components that schools should consider including in their AUPs:

  • preamble
  • policy statement
  • acceptable uses
  • unacceptable uses
  • violations/sanctions
  • acknowledgement & signatures

We’ve also included a place for Considerations/Comment and Resources. Michelle and I have also used the ‘comment’ function on Google Docs to make comments about specific text. (I have set the Share settings to allow others to add their own comments as well.)

Some Observations
As I cut and pasted my school’s AUP into the different sections I realized our acceptable uses and unacceptable uses are blended together in a list so I separated them out. I think these should be separate and the acceptable use section should be a place to really promote good digital citizenship. I’ve seen many AUPs that are a “Don’t do this or this will happen.” I think the AUP should also let students know how to ‘do it right’.

Regarding the preamble, I think my school should include text from our Technology for Learning Philosophy to help give it more purpose. I see many AUPs limited to one page and the preamble and policy statement can take up some room and be a bit wordy. But they also give purpose to the AUP in the bigger scope of the school’s policy and expectations.

I found it interesting that I liked some of formal wording and structure in Michelle’s document and she liked the friendlier tone in mine. Michelle is creating a very comprehensive document for her school and is addressing many issues. I think schools have to consider what their AUP is going to be. Is it going to be a comprehensive document to be shared with all or is it going to be more of permission slip for students to use technology provided by the school connected to the larger IT policies and procedures?

 Some final thoughts
This was a great experience collaborating with Michelle on this final project. We had some great conversations which I can’t begin to summarize in a few paragraphs. I really took a good look at my own school’s AUP and now have suggestions and resources regarding how we could update and improve our current AUP. Michelle brought up great points about safety, security, privacy and monitoring. I think I may have more questions to ask than answers to give! However, my main suggestion would be that creation or revision of an AUP needs to be a collaborative effort that includes administrators, board members, teachers, staff, and students. (I would recommend using Andrew Churches AUA Analysis Tool.) And its development should be in relation to a look at our IT policies and procedures as a whole.  I would also suggest that we look at how we incorporate the bigger concept of digital citizenship into our curriculum and into our code of conduct. Just a few ideas from one teacher…

(We welcome your comments on our Google Doc: Course 2 Final Project AUP (DB & ML)!)

Link to Michelle’s reflection for our Course 2 Final Project

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