Tools, Affordances, and Activity

All tools have affordances. We can do stuff with tools to change our environment. In fact  if you read any elementary science book you learn about simple machines. From the Pyramids to my doorstop tools have shaped us. Thus you cannot separate tools from  knowledge; social, cultural and physical contexts; or the activity in which the tool was used.

It used to take quite some time for new affordances to evolve around a tool. Many tools even reach a state of almost perfect design and do not change at all. Social norms, tinkerers, engineers did not invent new uses for old tools that often.

Not anymore.

An evolving artisan caste of engineers and developers create new tools at a breakneck pace. Take The site  started as a place to gather and annotate rap lyrics, and  has evolved into a powerful social annotation platform.

Annotation as Tool

Annotation is one of the most important external storage tools in human history. It has developed with writing from the cunieform to the browser. Actually many early technologists  believed the true power of the web lie within our ability to finally annotate and tag all the world’s knowledge. Due to this core belief new tools arose  and new affordances emerged.

Yet the web also ushered in an era of “participatory affordance surfacing.” On social networks, writing platforms, and gaming communities, the user and not the engineer create social practices that coalesce into new ways to use someone else’s tool.What took decades or centuries now takes days or hours. We have crowd sourced tool development.

Hacking Lit Genius

Last night, October 15th, Paul Allison hosted Dr. Jeremy Dean, education guru for on Teachers Teaching Teachers (episode 415). I and some friends I know from the genius forums joined up to discuss how we use Genius in the classroom.

Jeremy discussed some of the hardcore engineering going on behind the scenes. Dr. Dean also revealed that  teachers who had figured out to hack the system have driven many of design decisions made by their engineers (Teacher’s Guide to Learn More).

So here are my favorite hacks (here is the suggested use guide for students)  that were discussed or I thought up after the show. If you plan to steer far away from the suggested use I would use your own classroom page of a text rather than existing pages.

Adopt a Poem

Elisa Beshero-Bondar created an adopt a poem project for her 19th century British literature class. In the project students take ownership of the poem as a form of quality assurance for the peers. They develop expertise around a text and then guide others through social annotation.

The learning activity that Elisa created, with the focus on an academic voice to establish credibility creates a scoail place for her students to practice learning, writing, reading, and talking like serious critics.

Meme Remix

This is an activity I developed as a maker challenge for my class. I asked the class to annotate texts by creating a meme for a particular snippet. The students then have to explain how the meme fits the text selection.

Let’s make annotation multimodal (up next annotate in emoji only…..).

 Literature Circles

This idea popped in my head during the middle of the show. Almost every teacher in the conversation noted that the annotation features were being used more to talk about texts rather than analyze texts.

I had the idea (probably because in my Children’s Lit class we are currently learning how students get mired in fruitless literature circles) that social annotation maybe the place for literature circles to evolve online. Annotation requires us to read with purpose. Yet live literature circles too often devolve into completing roles without discussion. Students work toward their assigned purpose as if completing a worksheet.

Maybe such an activity would benefit more from an asynchronous and distributed model of participation. If you gave groups of students roles within a classroom text. You could have your traditional questioner, the viral visualizer (making remixing images and memes, vocabulizer (embedded slidedeck with four slides-What it is? What it isn’t. A sentence, a picture), a summarizer (make the outline in the sidebar annotation add gist statement annotations), and any other assigned roles.

Then have the class, either virtually or face to face meet and discuss the text. Make sure they discuss the texts and not their roles. Comprehension strategies should be used as scaffolds  and not as topics during text based discussion.

Video Response Journals

The embed features on are powerful. We can use this to our advantage. What if you engaged in video based annotations. Students could link to or embed Vine or Instagram videos (I will double check) for short focused discussions of annotations. If you wanted to collect longer student reactions to nuggets of knowledge I know they can embed YouTube movies.

POSSE Platform

The concept of Publish on Your Own Site Syndicate Everywhere spreads from the open and indie web movement. Its the idea that you keep ownership or your own material but then spread it around the web like a rumor in middle school.

Lit.Genius makes this very possible. First they allow you to embed an annotated text anywhere on the web (tip if you run wordpress install a javascript plug-in). This means you can add the article to your lms or personal website.

Your students then could write a literary analysis blog post. They can link to specific annotations in their blogposts. They  then embed the blog posts on to the text in an annotation. The young bloggers could then comment on each others blogs using either their own blogs or as a suggestion on the  original annotation.

If you embed the text on your class website and student embed their blog posts on the text using lit.genius you in essence bud a curated collection of literary analysis posts directly connected to your content.

Be A Rebel. Annotate Like it is 1753.

These five hacks represent user developed affordances for using lit.genius. Annotation as a tool has been around almost as long as writing. It is okay to stick to the student guide for annotation. This also allows you to play on the very public versions of texts.

In fact some participants in last night show were hesitant to fool around with established practices (for fun they read centuries old poetry written by dead white guys. Of  course scholars of this calibre respect the old fashion while playing with the new).  That is okay.

I just feel tools for participatory learning allow us to engage simultaneously in both text based talk and text based analysis. Knowing that these are the tools of good readers I try to exploit any literacy tool for these outcomes.

Getting Started

  1. Read the Teacher’s Guide to Learn More
  2. Read the   suggested use guide for students
  3. Check out what these innovative educators are doing: Meera Nair , Mr. Allen, and me.
  4. Start annotating the world.
When you examine the instructional shifts outlined in the Common Core State Standards (though I prefer the term better practice rather than shifts)  you will find grounding  claims in evidence as central to many of the goals outlines in the CCSS anchor standards.

This often involves a series of practices labeled as analytical or close reading. I have explained that close reading is not a goal but rather it is the ends to the means. It is what good readers do to  utilize evidence from the text  during reading, writing, and speaking.

To engage your students in analytical reading I have explained that I often draw on the work of Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (2011)  and suggest basing your reading on text based talk and text based analysis. I also believe that in order to fully make meaning with complex texts students need to transform the text by creating their own literary responses (Smagorinsky, 2007)


Using Digital Texts and Tools

New media allows us to combine these three elements: original response, text based talk, and text based analysis into our instructional routine. I have discussed using SubText or neuAnnotate on iOS devices and PDFZen on chrome devices. When I am keynoting a conference or doing workshops with a district I often hear, “We are a BYOD district. How can I do this and not be device specific?”

Rap Genius as the Device Agnostic Solution

Rap Genius, the largest database of annotated lyrics in the world has launched exciting new educator features. These include, poetry genius (for literature) and news genius (for current events and informational texts).

Rap Genius and the educational offshoots are web based. This means they are device agnostic. This will allow BYOD districts to have a collaborative place online to engage in the close reading of texts.

Using digital texts and tools for text annotation combines the three elements I believe are necessary for analytical reading. More importantly I believe tools, such as rap genius increase the efficacy and efficiency of teaching and assessing text annotation.

How Do I Get Started?

You can become a Genius by first signing up for an account. You can link to Facebook or Twitter. Then email Liz at and let her know that you want to be “educator-ized.”  This will allow you to create classroom pages.

Next you have to add a text and create a classroom page. Many of the texts you may want to use are already included so search first, but I added a chapter so you can see how easy teachers can use poetry and news genius:

Rap Genius began as a lyrics sight and then expanded into more traditional literary and nonfiction texts. This have left some UI features that may confuse some students. Poems and chapters are called songs. If students add original work or poetry they share “songs.” This is confusing at first but easy to overcome.

Text  segments can only be annotated once. This causes some students to race to be first. Then other students can offer “suggestions.” The “suggestions” feature is also used for general conversations about annotations and the text and may not refer to improving the original annotation. To address this issue teachers can take a few steps. First create multiple class sets of texts and have students annotate in groups.

My other idea is to create classroom annotations codes such as Q-for questions, C- for criticism, !!- favorite part, etc. Students can then use these labels within the suggestion box.

Like many digital texts and tools Rap Genius does not allow students under the age of 13 (thank you COPA) to use the website. That does not mean you are out of luck. To handle this issue educators should create a teacher account. Then place students in small groups. Have them annotate the poem using pencils. As a class you can then vote on or randomly select the annotations that you the teacher will enter on the text.


For BYOD districts clamoring for a device agnostic annotation tool Rap genius is your answer. For those districts wed to a specific OS you should still evaluate Rap Genius as a possible g solution to build in opportunities for close reading.

Close reading is not the goal. It is what good readers do to reach a goal of reading for and with evidence. Rap Genius will allow educators to model, teach, and assess students analytical reading while providing opportunities to use multimodal reading and writing environments.


Related Articles

[relatedkingpro show=”4″ images=true width=”150″ height=”150″ placeholder=false]