Tech Tips: YouTube Speed Control

Have you ever wanted to speed up or slow down the playback of YouTube videos?  This is particularly useful when watching videos that feature primarily spoken voice, such as interviews, speeches, podcasts, or audio books (yep; there are TONS of audio books on YouTube!).  If you’re using a modern, up-to-date web browser, it’s easy to do.

First, check the ‘Gear’ menu on any YouTube video to make sure the ‘Speed’ feature is not already available to you:
Screenshot 2015-06-05 at 2.20.49 PM

If you don’t see the ‘Speed’ menu option in the ‘Gear’ menu, visit and select the option to “Request the HTML5 player”.  You should now have the ‘Speed’ control in the ‘Gear’ menu. 🙂

1.25 is a barely noticeable speed increase.
1.5 feels fast.  Offers a nice speed boost for spoken voice.
2 is hyper-speed mode.  Particularly useful is the speaker speaks very slowly.

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New Resource: Visual Quotes

I’ve added a new feature to my Resources page: Visual Quotes.

Here are the first two Visual Quotes to make the page:



Feel free to share these Visual Quotes on social media, print them out and hang them on your classroom walls, or whatever strikes your fancy!

Have a suggestion for a Visual Quote? Drop me a line in the comment box!

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Opinion: The “Middle Grade” Book Label

Over at a post on the Nerdy Book Club, I recently posted the following comment regarding the “Middle Grade” book label:

I’m not sure if I like the official “Middle Grade” categorization for books appropriate for this age range. Nothing wrong with recommending books for a certain group of readers, but that “Middle Grade” label places too much of a limitation on potential readers — and authors.

As an author, I do not want to write into the box of the “Middle Grade” label. What I write may indeed be appropriate for and enjoyed by middle grade readers, but a good book should offer an organically constructed story, not one tailored to fit into a convenient, easily marketable package.

My 6th graders are loving my first novel, and it’s certainly an appropriate read for them, but when I wrote it, I had none of the characteristics of 6th grade readers shaping my writing process.

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Notes from the Classroom: NSA/Facebook Non-Fiction Article Discussion

Today I made my first stab at following a recommendation picked up from a recent reread of Mike Schmoker’s excellent 2011 book, “Focus”.  One strategy for getting students engaged in reading (non-fiction in this case), thinking, discussing, and writing about their reading/thinking/discussion presented by Schmoker is the use of news articles on current hot topics of the day.

Careful to avoid anything overly political, I chose an article that blended the hot-button issue of the NSA and Edward Snowden with a topic that no middle schooler can refuse to be interested in: Facebook.

Even though the article featured less than stellar prose and lots of difficult vocabulary (like ‘exfiltrate,’ ‘doppelganger,’ and ‘malicious’) each successive class sailed through reading aloud chunks of paragraphs, needing minor pronunciation help here and there.  But in terms of meaning, the sense of the difficult terms came through in the context.

The term ‘malware’ prompted a good review of earlier work with the Latin roots “bene” (having a “good” sense) and “mal” (having a “bad/evil” sense).  We came up with a working definition for ‘malware’ as “bad (soft)ware,” which pretty much hits the nail on the head.  When we later encountered the phrase “malicious data packets,” we were ables to decode this as “data that is bad in some way”.

The most lively topical discussion was around the issue of HTTPS vs. HTTP.  When I shared the story about open wifi hotspots and Facebook login stealing with Firesheep, students were quite engaged in questioning the security of their own social media accounts and their actions and practices in the brave new digital world.

One student who has read my first novel astutely pointed out the connection between the technological and internet security issues in the article and themes, scenes and characters in “Digital Me“.

I ended the discussion by asking students to write a “3-2-1”: 3 things they learned, 2 questions they had, and 1 thing they wanted to know more about.

Overall, the engagement from students with this article presented in this manner far exceeded my expectations.  I look forward to doing this again!

Technical note:
I used to make the web page news article both ‘print friendly’ and to remove distracting elements for display on the smartboard.

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Notes from the Classroom: Pi Day 2014

Today, I witnessed something that I felt was quite amazing.  In front of myself and the rest of the class, one of my students accurately recited the number Pi to 60 digits.  Not ’16’, as I initially misheard the student claim, but the big 6-0.

And the student rattled off the numbers, often in chunks of three or four, with no mistakes and only minor pausing or hesitation a few times.  I followed along on the computer to verify accuracy.


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On Teaching: Introducing Shakespeare in the Middle Grades

Shakespeare's Eyes

Photo by J. M. Varner


This school year, in the second and third quarters, I’ve been experimenting with introducing Shakespeare to my middle school students. I’ve been slow and gentle in my approach, as it’s far too easy for anyone (let alone a 12-year-old) to turn off to Shakespeare if he’s forced on them.

My goal has been to help my students begin to appreciate the richness of meaning and depth of feeling in Shakespeare’s text. I’m not looking for full-scale literary criticism here, of course, but rather the ability to 1) start to feel the meaning behind the words and 2) begin to have a feel for the rhythm and flow of the language — and to not be turned off by it all.


The Shakespeare full-text database at MIT is an excellent source of uncluttered webpages featuring Shakespeare’s text that can be easily projected on a Smartboard with the text at a size large enough for the whole class to read.  Also, using the web browser’s ‘Find on Page’ (or similar) function, it’s easy to directly pull up certain passages based on key words (even of only partially remembered).


I start by selecting excerpts based on student request — passages that students may already be familiar with to some degree, or certain plays that they are aware of or have interest in.  A little background in Shakespeare helps here to narrow down some key/famous passages in those plays that will work well for the next step.

With a passage of Shakespeare’s text projected on the Smartboard, the text size large enough that the whole class can see (which also reduces the amount of text on the screen, preventing it from being too overwhelming), we then do a Read Aloud of that section, often having multiple students take a crack at the same bit of text.  This is done strictly on a volunteer basis, and, to keep it fun, some students will read in their best approximation of a British accent, often with hilarious results.

To help with the flow and feel of the language itself, when necessary, in between student readings I will step in and ‘coach’ students on how the rhythm of the text should sound.

After several students have read, we’ll then have a discussion about the meaning behind the text we’ve just read.  What do students think is going on in the scene?  What emotion is the character feeling/expressing through his/her lines?  What key words or phrases that you recognize lead you to your conclusions?  As we are not doing deep, extensive textual analysis, the goal here is to focus on the big picture, the overall gist, of the meaning behind the text.

Again, with Shakespeare, a big goal is helping students to not be intimidated and turned off by the unfamiliar nature of the language, but rather helping them to appreciate the aspects of the language and meaning that they are able to grasp.

If we have time, I might show a brief clip of a performance of the scene we’ve just read aloud, but I’ve found with my students that they tend to have much more fun trying the language out for themselves than watching an actor perform the lines.

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Flash Fiction: A Singular Choice

A Singular Choice

I didn’t want to go in there. This was my choice, I know, but now I’m having second thoughts.

I slowly made my way up the long, winding steps that led to the building’s main entrance.

Why am I doing this? Things were fine at home. Sure, Stevie can be annoying, but that didn’t seem so bad right now.

Mom and Dad had said it was up to me, my choice. That I’m old enough to be choosing these kinds of things for myself. Having that freedom, that responsibility had been so exciting at the time.

But now I wasn’t so sure I’d made the right choice.

But it was too late now, right?

I reached the top of that impossibly long sidewalk and paused in front of the main entrance doors. Hitching the bag (purchased brand new just last week) higher on my shoulder, I decided that I now had no choice but to push through the fear and doubt that had creeped up on me and just do it.

Taking one final deep breath of the freedom-infused outside air, I pushed open the main entrance door and walked in, underneath the giant letters that hung above the entrance: SQUIRREL HILL HIGH.

Author’s Note: This story is part of the Squirrel Hill High universe, which includes the novel “Digital Me”.

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