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!

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.

Introducing Ponder’s Project for the Humanities

At Ponder, we always have a lot of irons in the fire, whether troubleshooting technology problems for our pilot schools, thinking about big data issues, or just trying to build the best educational technology for you that we can. But one project we are especially excited about is our Humanities Project.

At Ponder, we believe that technology can be used to enhance the study of the humanities, but we are an exception. Much of educational technology is focused on STEM. It’s no surprise, then, that over the past few years, popular opinion has maintained that technology and an increasingly high tech economy threaten the future of the humanities. Yet, we know, as you do, that the humanities are as important as ever, if not more so, as we enter this uncertain, complex future.

With this in mind, we are working to bring together teachers, thought leaders, journalists, engineers, businesspeople, and others to make the case for the humanities in a high-tech forum, pitched to a high-tech audience. Occasionally, we will feature some of our favorite professors, friends in the tech world, and others who wish to discuss what the humanities mean to them. If you want to participate, please let us know!

For one of our first interviews, we had the pleasure of chatting with Roosevelt Montas, Director of Columbia University’s Center for the Core Curriculum and professor of American literature. He is a great champion of the liberal arts and also a great friend of Ponder. See our conversation below for a fascinating take on the future of technology in humanities education.

As you watch, take note of Columbia Teachers College EdLab’s Vialogues platform, which we’re using to host the videos. Comment on the conversation as you watch; it’s awesome.

New in Ponder: Reorganizing the Feed and Lightweight Peer Review

Weigh in on your classmates' responses.

Weigh in on your classmates’ responses.

We shipped some new features! Well really we’re doing that all the time. This time however, we’ve moved some stuff around so we thought it was worth giving everybody a heads up on what’s changed.

There are 2 new significant feature areas:

  1. Reorganized Feed: ! | Latest | Me
  2. Expanded Voting: [ME TOO] [NOT ME] [WHY].

1. Reorganized Feed

We wanted a way to bubble up the heavy-hitting articles and responses so we created a “!” feed where you can browse the articles with the most activity separate from “LATEST” where articles show up in chronological order and “ME” which shows articles you responded to.

If you just made a response and are wondering where it is in the feed, click over to the “LATEST” tab and you should see it there!

Over the coming months we will be continuously refining and improving how we calculate activity level for articles in the “!” feed.

New Feed Filters

Your feed is now reorganized into 3 new filters: !, Latest and Me.

2. Vote!

We’ve redesigned and expanded the [ME TOO] button. It’s now anonymous and joined by [NOT ME] and [WHY] to provide quick and easy ways for the whole class to weigh in and provide feedback on individual responses. You can agree or disagree with how someone else responded to a reading or ask them why they responded the way they did.

You can think of it as a baby step towards peer review.

And of course voting doesn’t prevent you from responding the old-fashioned way: Go read the article and respond with your own sentiment and themes!

  • You can’t vote on your own responses.
  • Votes are mutually exclusive. If you say [ME TOO], you can’t also ask [WHY]?
  • Voting is anonymous and no longer counts as having made a response.
  • Votes are tallied and displayed in the voting buttons as soon as 1 person votes!
New Voting Buttons

Me too, Not me and ask Why of your classmates’ responses.