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Monday, February 27, 2017

Desmos in ELA...Isn't that a math tool?

In an 11th grade Honors English class this past week, students were discussing Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby with a focus on the different symbols throughout the chapter.

We designed a Desmos Activity that allowed the students to work through the potential symbols collaboratively in groups of 4.   For each element, they had to decide between "symbol" and "not a symbol".  Once they selected their choice, they were prompted to explain their reasoning with textual evidence.  After they submitted their explanation, they were able to see up to three other group's explanations before moving on.  The activity was student-paced so all groups were working at different paces and were able to take the time they needed to think through their responses without the pressure of being "moved on" with the rest of the class.

As they worked through the activity, the teacher was able to monitor student thinking through the Desmos Teacher Dashboard.

After the groups finished working through the Desmos activity, they were given the link to an individual hyperdoc that had mini-screencasts where the teacher recorded herself explaining whether or not each element was a symbol or not.  Students then were able to listen to the teacher's instruction at their own pace, take any needed notes, and fill out a column that asked them to compare the teacher's explanation to their original choice.

The final activity of this lesson was for students to look at the book so far (Chapters 1-5) and find one additional symbol that wasn't in the activity and explain why it was a symbol by using textual evidence.

We chose Desmos because it allowed the activity to be self-paced and also allowed groups to view other group's thinking after they submitted their thoughts.  Both of these features seemed to be essential to the success of the activity

In addition, we chose to put the teacher's explanation on screencasts so students were able to access them at their own pace when they were ready for it (i.e. after they had worked through the activity fully themselves).  In the past, class time was used for this explanation, which decreased the amount of student discussion time that could occur.  With the redesign of this lesson, students had an entire class period to discuss symbolism.

Overall, the activity was highly successful.  The students were engaged in the small group discussion, and the tools we chose (especially the self-pacing and ability to still collaborate cross-group by seeing others' responses) allowed for ample processing and discussion time to ensure students met the learning objectives for the day.  Desmos is definitely a tool that will be used again!

Here is some more student feedback on the activity:

  • I thought the desmos activity was very effective and helpful in recognizing the differences in symbols and figurative language or archetypes.
  • I think desmos is a great way to work in groups and think about different topics. It was a different way of doing things, so it definitely made it more interesting. :)
  • I enjoyed the peer-feedback in order for better understanding of the symbol as students can see the perspectives of their peers. I also thought the process from question to question flowed smoothly and I believed it worked out really well.
  • Having a student-paced activity like this made discussion effective in keeping time and staying on task.
  • It was a nice change of pace in order for the discussion to be more interactive online and for it to be student paced because sometimes i don't understand things in discussions and in this types of discussion we can talk about it more and come to a conclusion
  • I think Desmos was the most effective technology resource introduced this year. The fact that we were allowed to see peer responses helped facilitate peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration among students. Considering that the activity was student paced, I think Desmos allowed me and my peers to fully contemplate our responses before submitting them.
  • It ran smoothly and the transition between desmos and screencast was easy. However, in the future I would do our groups thoughts for one symbol, then the screencast, then our notes on whether we were correct or not, then the next symbol. This would make it easier to remember our thoughts, and I think it would flow better.
  • I liked how Desmos enabled us to move at our own pace, yet would have preferred if everyone wrote for themselves in order to increase engagement in the activity.
  • The student pacing and ability to see student responses were the most effective as they allowed more control to be placed in the hands of the student. This helped my group better understand the content as we were allowed to spend as long as we needed on a question, but could also reflect and compare our thoughts with other groups.
  • I liked this activity because instead of having it on a written activity it is a memorable thing as we were able to work in groups, agree and disagree, as well as see your face and be able to play it multiple times. The group recorder in my group kinda just wrote without telling us what he was writing which was the only issue. A suggestion is that maybe we could rotate around the laptop and have us all write.


  1. I just shared this with my English 11 colleagues. I'm definitely interested in this activity and am impressed. Though, not having ever used Desmos before, I need to look into how it works.

    1. Awesome! Let me know if you try it out. I just updated the post to include the actual Desmos activity that you can make a copy of for yourself.