In Flexibility, an Opportunity for Foreign Language Learning

Designing software is a balancing act between generality and specificity.

The more specific you make your tool. The clearer its purpose and how to start using it.

The more generic you make your tool, the more flexible and customizable it is, and the broader the range of scenarios it can support.

En El Ano 2019

Someone has translated many of the xkcd comics into Spanish!

For example, right now there’s actually nothing to stop a teacher from using Ponder micro-responses as a way to grade and provide feedback on their own students’ written assignments. Why not? Highlight a claim in their essay and ask for more examples to explicate and support it.

Similarly, Ponder could also be used to to guide students through a structured peer-review process where they evaluate and respond to each others written assignments.

However, we know that unless we bake an explicit workflow into Ponder to guide students and teachers through these scenarios, it will occur to precisely no one to use Ponder in these ways. We know because no one’s done it!

In the grand scheme of things, Ponder is more on the generic, customizable end of things. Student management is loose (just send your students a link and it’s up to them to join a class!). There is no explicit assignment workflow. (We’re depending on teachers to broadcast assignments and students to receive them “out-of-band.”)

In this respect, Ponder feels more like a general purpose tool (Google Docs), or nerdy Twitter, than educational software.

xkcd comics, on the other hand, are specific and often piercingly insightful, pretty much the opposite of generic, and quite hard to translate, not just linguistically, but culturally. (Amazingly, someone has done it anyway!)

Software people love generality. However, Ponder’s open-endedness has posed challenges to us on the adoption front. We’re continuously working on ways to get teachers up and running, both in the form of tutorials and FAQs as well as continuous iteration on design.

But we proceed with caution, careful not to undermine the flexibility that teachers appreciate and enjoy once they’ve figured out how to create that first Ponder assignment that gets the class reading together.

Perhaps Ponder starts out as a way of practicing finding topic sentences and supporting evidence in class. Then it becomes a way to identify examples of key concepts in reading assigned for homework. Then it becomes a way for students to bring in examples for class from outside of assigned reading, from reading they’re doing on their own that’s driven by their own interests. Then it becomes a way for students to do research for a paper, or work together on a group project. We’re still waiting for someone to start using it to support content-area literacy in Science and Math classes.

The sky’s the limit, anything could happen…including apparently, teaching Spanish.

Ponder Sentimientos

Ponder Sentimientos!

We just received our first Spanish sentiment set from teacher Federico Moreno at Sea Crest School in Half Moon Bay, California! As many teachers have said to us, what better way to learn the colloquialisms of a new language than to practice when to say you’re “on the fence” or when someone or something is “over the hill”? It’s early days, of course, the English sentiments have gone through many, many iterations and we’re only just getting to understand sub-sets by student level and subject area. But this Spanish set is a big first and that’s very exciting!

So, Foreign Language Learners (FLL) and teachers, let us know if you’d like to work with us on sentiments for your favorite language! We have teachers interested in applying it to Latin and French.

We’ve also had teachers point out the now obvious fact that really there’s nothing to stop people using Ponder to teach Spanish-speaking students ELA in their native tongue. (Duh, how obvious!)

Spanish teachers, let us know if you’d like to give these a trial run, and send us your feedback – when you create your class, just send a note to support through the “Ask Us” tab on the left of the site, and we’ll drop in the Spanish sentiments for you.

We’re excited for Ponder’s foreign-language learning potential and grateful for all of the teacherly enthusiasm!

Can critical reading also be fun?

Last week I wrote about the challenges and pitfalls of allowing students to write elaborations in their micro-reading responses. But what have we to say on the subject of engaging students in reading?

It’s great how specific common core gets about what it really means to read critically:

Determine what the text says explicitly…make logical inferences…cite specific textual evidence…support conclusions…Determine central ideas…analyze development…summarize key supporting…Analyze how and why…Determine technical, connotative, and figurative… analyze specific word choices…Analyze structure…Assess point of view…Integrate and evaluate…visually and quantitatively…Delineate and evaluate arguments and specific claims…validity of reasoning…relevance and sufficiency…comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

But boy does it sound like work! And (dare I say it) not of the fun variety.

At the end of the day, “getting good” at critical reading comes down to practice! practice! practice! Quantities of practice beyond completing homework assignments; quantities of practice that are unreasonable for a teacher to grade; quantities of practice that can only result from embracing a habit of reading for the sake of enjoyment, not grades.

I love reading!

I love reading! (and xkcd)

Good readers love to read, “poor” readers don’t. Reading makes you a better reader.

Like so many other intractable problems, figuring out how to improve the lot of “poor readers” is another one of these depressing chicken-and-egg situations.

So how about getting specific about how to make reading fun? …in 4th grade, in high school, in grad school, in life?

We certainly don’t pretend to have any sure-fire answers. What we do have are a set of assumptions and biases we’ve collected over the past couple of years of piloting Ponder in the classroom:

  1. Students are more engaged if they have a say in what they’re engaging with.
  2. An excellent course reader is the backbone of any syllabus. Still, primary and journalistic texts are always going to be more interesting than textbooks.
  3. Self-direction can’t be “taught”, but like a muscle, it can be developed through assignments that leave room for self-determination.
  4. You can teach techniques for critical reading, but “getting really good at it” can only be achieved through cultivating a regular habit of close reading.
  5. The only way to “debug” reading problems is to gain a view into what students are thinking while they read. Writing is better than multiple choice for such assessment. However, what’s needed is a solution that allows students to “practice” critical reading several dozen times a day in a way teachers can actually stay on top of and respond to.
  6. Critical reading is most fun when it’s a way to challenge how you think and feel about the world and least fun when it’s an end in and of itself.

I’ll go one step further and say, identifying thesis statements and supporting evidence are means, not ends.

They are technical way stations on the path to discovering the surprising, counter-intuitive insights that are the real reasons why “good readers” love to read.

Such sweeping statements are very fine in the abstract, so next up: Getting specific about assignments and lesson plans to make reading fun!

Ponder now supports writing…with conditions.

Google “essay-grading rubric” and you will find endless resources describing a well-written essay.

  • clearly articulated
  • bristling with energy
  • identifiable structure
  • provides a clear overview
  • logical order
  • stays on topic
  • clear, well-focused
  • well supported
  • detailed and accurate
  • introduce main topic
  • author’s purpose is clear
  • vivid words and phrases
  • accurate
  • natural
  • lean, economical
  • easy to understand
  • not overly repetitive
  • and did I mention it should be clear…and focused?
1960s Dare Devil

How dashing! (From

I can picture it now personified in the form of a 60s era superhero RUBRICMAN!

Vivid and Energetic!

We have all had the experience of reading a piece of writing that met the letter of such a rubric, yet failed in every way to actually say anything or be about anything. (Just check out’s platform page.)

Are we in danger of simply teaching students to master the art of political-speak? Grammatical, vigorous phrases peppered with topical keywords bolstered by statistics from reputable sources, topped off with a garnish of “Even sos, Howevers and Neverthelesses” to intimate that a great struggle between thesis and antithesis are taking place to produce a hard-wrought synthesis: “In conclusion…”

Is teaching-to-the-rubric any better than teaching-to-the-test?

A human can certainly discern when a student “uses complicated terms without fully considering their implications.” But can a machine? (I’ll leave that for another blog post.)

At Ponder, we see the value of such rubrics, yet we remain wary of their pitfalls, particularly where software is involved.

As a result, we’ve recently added written responses to Ponder…with caveats.

Click the pencil to write

Click the pencil to elaborate!

Readers must still first select from Ponder’s predefined menu of sentiments. Any written response is presented as an opportunity to elaborate on the sentiment you chose.

In that sense, written responses in Ponder are more “elaboration” than “free response.”

Why? Surely “writing your mind” is a more challenging and meaningful exercise than selecting from a menu of predefined choices.

Yes, absolutely! …provided there is someone (read: the teacher) to provide feedback (read: call b.s.).

Without timely feedback, written response can easily become a bureaucratic exercise: Writing for the sake of having written.

Therefore, given the time-pressures of teaching, we’re sticking with the idea that written responses in Ponder should be used sparingly and strategically, guided by the process of sentiment-selection.

How? Ponder sentiments are precise leaving little room for the kind of vagueness that allows you to say something without saying anything. Confused? What do you need to un-confuse yourself? Having a strong reaction? Is it intellectual or emotional? Positive or negative? Sarcastic or earnest?

Our sentiments are by no means perfect or complete. They are a work-in-progress and always will be. If you complained that they are a rather blunt instrument for expressing the finer points of human studies, we would agree with you while maintaining that they are still better than providing no structure at all. Nevertheless, Ponder sentiments’ bluntness is their principle strength.

They mean what they say and by pushing you the reader to choose one, they also prompt you to seriously consider what you mean by what you say.

Once you’ve committed to a sentiment, you are free to elaborate, equivocate, and caveat to your heart’s content. But first, like a disenchanted voter in the ballot box, you must cast your lot, clearly and purposefully.