Category Archives: Project ideas

Polyvore: Community Building Around Fashion

Assembling a "set" at Polyvore

Here’s a new one on me – fashionistas uniting, creating, and communing online at a web site called Polyvore.  On this site you can create fashion “sets” – sort of collage assemblages – made of pictures of merchandize, clipped from all over the Web. Polyvore-istas get their images from online boutiques, department stores, jewelry wholesalers, online shoe stores, and catalogues.  The Polyvore site provides you with the collage-making tools – an electronic clipper, basic text tools, background options, along with tools to shrink, flip, or enlarge – and then save them in your “closet”.  The Polyvore-ist (they sometimes refer to themselves as “Polywhores”) assembles their pieces in an artful arrangement – often including cosmetics, accessories, background images, flowers, and even a picture of a fashion models (or themselves!) to complete the ensemble.  Polyvore limits you to a maximum of 50 items per set, which seems sufficient for most of its registered users – which, btw, number 1.4 million.

“It’s sort of like playing paper dolls with pictures of real clothes”, explains Alexandra Jacobs in a recent New Yorker article about the site. As background for her article, Jacobs did a ride-along of a user test, at Polyvore’s Mountain View, California offices.  They invited a frequent Polyvore-ista, from Calgary, who goes by the handle “MyChanel”, to come to Mountain View and put together a set while the engineers (and Jacobs) observed her in action.  I found the description of the way MyChanel worked absolutely fascinating (the article is worth a careful read), but what intrigued me the most was the social element of the thing.  Before MyChanel could start assembling her set, she wanted to clear the messages on her Polyvore home page. There were direct messages from some of her 9,356 international contacts, along with comments on a set that she’d posted the previous day. When she completed the test set for the Polyvore engineers, she accumulated 60 comments in the first 12 minutes. That’s a lot of socializing! MyChanel described how much she enjoys the comaraderie of the Polyvore site – plus she loves having an anonymous identity. Her friends (her “Polypals”) on the site know her by her sets – and by her comments on other people’s sets.

Of course, there is a Polyvore blog site, a Polyvore Facebook group, YouTube tutorials, and you can follow Polyvore on Twitter (@polyvore). Polyvore organizes events and contests – timed or themed set building or sponsored competitions (for instance, Nike invited Polyvores to create “a look that best showcases how you like to look good and feel great” – winners would receive gift cards).

In addition to comments on various sets on the Polyvore site, there is an “ask” section of the site. Browsing through that, I read entries to help decide what “looks good on me” or “what should I wear with this skirt?”  It’s clear that these women (and they do seem to be mostly women) are not just assembling collages, they are also buying (based on what they see) and talking with each other about what they’re sporting in their real lives.  Each item in a collage has embedded information about where you can purchase it. So, as a model of a free online service driving commerce, Polyvore seems to be working pretty darned well.

What an intriguing idea this is.  I mean, I’m not much of a fashionista myself, but imagine a site like this set up around a field of study  – students assembling their own online scrapbooks of American History or a self-assembled study guide of images by topic.  Perhaps portfolios of art work, gardening, architecture, or cooking.  Or how about interdisciplinary projects, where students assemble collages of visuals to represent significant documents, inventions, religious practices, political movements, literature, and significant events of a particular time period?  A whole world of options comes to mind.

And once again (how many times do we need to hear this?) – it’s really all about building community around something that lights your fire.  Rage on Polyvore!



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An Early Christmas Gift – Charles Dickens Online

Charles Dickens

The New York Times and the Morgan Library have just given us all an early Christmas present.  The manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday ghost story, A Christmas Carol, is securely housed at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.  After Charles Dickens wrote the book, he bound his manuscript in red morocco as a gift for Thomas Mitton, his solicitor.  The red book passed through several owners before Pierpont Morgan acquired it in the 1890’s, and its been in the Morgan collection ever since.

Scholars are occassionally given access to the manuscript but the visiting public can only view it, once a year, during the Christmas season, under a glass case in the museum.  Museum curators thoughtfully display a different page each year, but, that still just comes down to one page a year – and only if you can get yourself to NYC.

But this year (and here’s the Christmas gift), the Morgan Library allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten manuscript online. From the comfort of your counting house, you can view the entire manuscript. Since Dickens’ penmanship left a bit to be desired, they’ve set it up so that you can toggle between the actual, hand-written manuscript, and a typed version of it. Not only that, you can zoom in, you can use their search tool to find something specific and you can read permalinks, embedded in the online versions that offer interesting asides and observations from Dickens’ scholars.

What a revealing thing it is to see the original manuscript of a classic like this. The first thing that struck me, when I flipped through the online pages, is what a mess it was!  Words scratched out, whole sections deleted, others inserted, ink blots…the messiness certainly supports the story of its creation – that Dickens, apparently, wrote the whole thing in a hurried six weeks, just in time for Christmas of 1843.

A Christmas Carol ManuscriptThere are other intriguing observations that come to light from examining the manuscript.  For instance, on page 48, Dickens changes some wording around the ghost of Christmas Present – he goes from “using his own words against him” to “turning on him for the last time with his own words.”  This change makes it clear that Dickens was setting up a more confrontational scene, making it more obvious that the ghost  has lost his temper. Another example is that the name “Bob Cratchit” doesn’t appear until the middle of the story.  What else can you find in there? And how might you use a resource like this with your students?

My brother-in-law, Todd Heyden, who is a Professor of English, teaching composition and literature at Pace University in NYC, suggested some very insightful teaching ideas around this material.  He explained to me that one of the hardest things to get across to his students is that writing is a recursive process (the old adage “writing is re-writing”) – what better way to prove the point than to show the Dickens “drafts” as an example?  Even Charles Dickens crossed things out, reconsidered, and revised.

He also reminded me that writing is social – it’s collaborative. As he put it, the reality of writing is far from the romatic notion of the artist, toiling away, in an isolated garret.  Although I don’t know who Dickens collaborated with, someone must have given him suggestions that guided his revisions.  Students mistakenly assume that they are on their own when they write.  They don’t always take seriously the idea that they can get help from their teachers, their peers, the writing center and, in the process, obtain a much better result.  As Todd puts it, “when students do take seriously this idea of writing as a collaborative process, good things happen.”

He also reminded me that Dickens’ fame grew as a result of reading his work aloud to audiences.  Telling students about this, suggesting that some of Dickens’ revisions undoubtedly came from his consideration of how his work sounds to a listening audience (maybe have them read some of the story aloud in class ?) will help attune them to this notion.  The best test of a sentence is to read it aloud – how does it sound? Todd regularly structures an in-class activity where he pairs students, asking them to read their papers aloud to eaach other (with the listener making no suggestions).  Just by hearing themselves read their work aloud, he tells me, they are compelled to consider their audience — and to revise.

Here’s another thought – the New York Times started a contest, to go along with the online manuscript, for readers to catch some of the 2000 edits that Dickens made on the manuscript and write in (on the associated blog), with their observations.  Maybe invite your students to participate?

Absolutely enchanting.  Thank you New York Times!

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The Digital Camera Reconsidered for Classroom Use


At the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) conference this year I caught the tail end of a workshop about using digital cameras in teaching, given by Brian Gross, Mike Kittel, and Brian Heeney (all from Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington, DE). They had some terrific ideas for using digital cameras in the classroom.  Here were a few gems:

– Taking pictures of students on the first day of class

– Photo record of a field trip of lab experience.

– Pictures of models or maps that students create.

– Photo a day project.

– Five-Photo Stories.


The New Eye-Fi

One of my favorite tips of theirs was a new piece of hardward I’d never heard of called the Eye-Fi. This is an SD memory card (for your camera), companioned with a USB wireless device that allows you to automatically and wirelessly download photos from your camera to your computer. No more cables, no more fussing around. It means instant access to the photos on your camera. There’s a range of options – these guys recommnded the Eye-Fi Pro (which is $140) which functions without a router (the others, that are less expensive must traffic through a router). With this technology, you can use the pictures you take in class and instantly have them up there on the screen – “Look at Suzy’s concept map!” or “Everyone look up here to see what group 3 figured out.”

As for digital camera recomendations – Brian says it’s hard to go wrong these days. You can get a perfectly good camera for $99. If your camera is capable of taking photos at 8 or 10 megapixel resolution, they recommend reducing the resolution to 3-4 mega pixels as that is perfectly sufficient for most classroom or web use and the photos download much faster. If you are buying a bunch of cameras for student use, they do recommend getting cameras that take double A batteries, so that it’s easy to replace them (without having to recharge). Tiger Direct is a web site they recommend for good deals on electronic equipment. They also provided the link to their wiki site that is chock-full of helpful teaching resources related to the use of digital cameras in the classroom.  Good stuff.

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Using Diigo to Start a Conversation with Students

A set of Darwin bookmarks on my Diigo page.
A set of Darwin bookmarks on my Diigo page.

I’m becoming increasingly fond of electronic bookmarking services like Delicious and Diigo. Diigo, in particular, has become my bookmarking tool of choice, because of their collaboration tools.  You can highlight, add sticky notes, search, make lists, and create groups. Here’s a 4-minute video showing how the Diigo collaboration tools work.

But the best way to get a feel for what you can do, is to take a look at an annotated article. Here’s an example, from Will Richardson.  What he’s done is to bookmark an article (from the Wall Street Journal) in Diigo, highlight key passages and then embellish with comments using their sticky notes feature.  When you’re ready, Diigo spawns a unique URL to your annotated version of the article. When others use this Diigo-created link to navigate to the article, they see your highlights and comments (roll over the highlighted comments and his sticky notes appear).  In addition to reading the bookmarker’s comments, the reader can comment right back – agreeing or disagreeing with you, asking further questions, seeking clarification.  With time, you can imagine a whole conversation started (and recorded) around an online article.

What an interesting idea to try with science students.  You could start by bookmarking an appropriate (pick a fairly straightforward one) scientific journal article and highlight it to point out the key elements.  You can add your own comments (with the sticky notes) to make points that support what you’ve been talking about in class or lab.  For instance, “here’s the researcher’s hypothesis” or “notice the basic structural elements of the paper”  – or ask them a question “which is the control group?”.  When students access the url you provide, they will see your annotations and can add their own.

Let me know if you try it – would love to see a collection of Diigo-marked articles with teacher-to-student conversations.

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Build a Book Online


Here’s an online utility that you might want to consider using for student projects – – online book creation sites.  Sites like Lulu, XLibris, and Bookemon are free utilities that allow you to create a book, using your own assets (text and images).  These sites are well designed, easy and intuitive to use.


In order to build your own book, you go to the site of your choice, create a free account, upload your pictures or text (word documents) and the site creates the book for you.  On Lulu and XLibris, you can create your own cover design. In the case of Bookemon, you can go further and design your own layout, adding text boxes, borders, and frames.

Once your book is just as you want it, you can publish it and  – if you want – buy a copy.  The price of the printed book depends, of course, on a variety of factors (e.g. length, color, type of binding) but you can typically purchase a 50-page physical book for about $20.

On the Lulu site you can list your book in their online catalog for others to purchase and you can offer up ebook versions of it for people to download. On the bookemon site, you can share the online version of your book with others either by providing a link or embedding code into your web site or social networking site.

Here’s a 41-page book on Acadia National Park that one of Cheryl Hollinger’s AP Biology students (from York, PA) created using the Bookemon site.  The photos above are pages from this students’ book.  Her wonderful creation gives the reader a very good feel for the park – both scenically and biologically.  And she was careful to provide references and options for more information at the end.

Poetry, cookbooks, memory books, or books on a topic (like Cheryl did with her students) all sound like useful and creative ways for students to express themselves.


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