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Learning to Outline with Inspiration

It seems as though students never really get the hang of outlining.  I’ve known teachers who have had students outline the chapters of their history books.  We have students write outlines for term papers and research reports.  They go through the motions, but many of them still never really get it.  It doesn’t help that Word’s outlining tools tend to have a mind of their own at times.  Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, capital and lowercase letters?  And oh, there’s the parentheses that show up after some of these identifiers if you get into a deeper level of detail.  It might as well be Esperanto.

I taught fifth grade at my school for five years before moving up to a year of sixth grade and then into this technology teaching position.  When the middle schoolers don’t know how to outline, I know from personal experience that it’s not for lack of effort on the part of their previous teachers.  It’s just a bit abstract for their young minds to grasp.  There is a better way, and folks, I am here to tell you about it.

Mind maps.  Maybe you’ve made them.  Perhaps it was a brainstorming session with large easels of giant sticky notes.  Or was it huge sheets of butcher paper?  Take heart, fellow 21st Century educators! No more trees need to die in the name of visual-spatial organization.  Put down those markers!

Initial Webspiration screen after loginIf you have never used the software called Inspiration (or its baby brother, Kidspiration), you are in for a treat.  If you have, you’re about to meet their cloud-based cousin.  There is a web-based version of Inspiration called Webspiration (http://www.mywebspiration.com).  Like its predecessors, it allows users to create a mind map of their ideas (topic, subtopics, sub-subtopics, etc.) and convert it to an outline with a simple click of a button.  In fact, I encourage my students to keep going back and forth between “diagram view” and “outline view” so they can see how the outline shapes up from the ideas spread out on the screen.  If something shows up out-of-order in the outline, the user can drag it from its incorrect location to where it should be.  It’s really fantastic.

There are lots of features I don’t even let my students explore yet, because I begin with having them focus on structure and organization.  But as they use it more, I will allow them to change colors in the mind map to help them keep their subtopics (and all related branches) well-organized.  There are also different shapes and clip art items for the pieces on the mind map.  It’s a visual thinker’s dream application.

Mind map made with WebspirationBut wait: there’s more!  It’s online, living on the cloud, and each user has his or her own account.  (I have my students use a particular naming convention of their school usernames followed by the school’s initials, coupled with only their school e-mail accounts, so I can help them if they lose track of their account information.)  I wanted to give my fifth graders a quick score for their first outlines made with Webspiration, so – get this – (are you sitting down?)… I had them share their documents with me.  Oh yes, you heard me.  Just like Google Docs and other such cloud-based applications, collaboration is simple.  Now, I had my students add me as a viewer, but there is also the option for users to add other users as collaborators.  It works in a very similar way to how Google Docs works.  Since I had just gotten them started on Google Docs this month, they were hip to the collaboration thing.  Since they’re about to begin group projects – with partners in different classes – about United States Presidents, having this collaborative option in Webspiration is wonderful.

Exporting an outline to Word or elsewhereIf you’re still not impressed, please check yourself for a pulse and then dig this: you can export the outlines you create directly to Google Docs or other word processors (RTF format).  Actually, there is the option of exporting to Word, Google Docs, or Inspiration, but if you’re like my school and have an older version of Inspiration, that won’t work very well.  Still the web-based version of this is enough to really get you and your students started on converting their ideas into mind maps and then outlines.  And I believe that seeing the logic of how outlines come about will enable the students, as they get older, to create outlines correctly without doing the mind map first.

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