The Educational Value of the New and Shiny

Teaching bright students presents its own set of challenges. Highly intelligent kids pick up new concepts quickly, but they get bored just as fast. Teachers who want to stay one step ahead need speed, flexibility, and a keen eye for novelty. This Honors English teacher jumps on brand new educational apps and features, like clickable image polls, to keep his students engaged.

John Damaso

A few weeks ago, John Damaso sat down to create his daily bellwork polls at Poll Everywhere and discovered a new feature — clickable image polling. He was so quick on the uptake that he may have been the first to use it in a classroom.

Turns out that’s just part of his M.O.


New Tech Gets Old Fast in High School

John is hardly new to educational technology. Brophy College Preparatory, where he teaches Honors English to 10th grade and AP English to 11th grade boys, was among the first to put tablet PCs in the hands of every student, way back in 2006. This year the gadget of choice is the iPad.

Brophy instructors rely on a wide array of educational apps to encourage students to interact, analyze and organize information, and craft creative responses to material. For John Damaso and his English students, Poll Everywhere is a class staple app that gets daily use.

But quality apps and gadgets aren’t enough to hold high schoolers’ attention. “They like it,” he says. “No one’s ever groaned and said, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna do a poll.’ But the more teachers use the same thing over and over, the less effective it becomes.

So how do you build curiosity and interest when new tech is old hat?

Here’s John’s method.

1. Look out for new educational apps, and new features on your most productive apps.

You never know when the next great educational app will appear, or when changes will pop up on the apps you use every day. John explains, “Novelty is such a currency in education. I’m always trying to find the next new thing and share it.”

This is a skill that involves a degree of spontaneity and flexibility. John, for example, was all set to create the usual straw-poll style opener, when he spotted the new clickable image feature. The subject for the day was Catcher in the Rye, specifically, Holden Caulfield’s adventures in NYC. John tossed his multiple choice poll in favor of the new clickable image option. He posted a map of NYC and asked students to pinpoint memorable places Holden visited.

New York

Student responses ranged all over the city, and sparked an engaging discussion of why those spots resonated more than others.

Recently the class moved on to a story called “Snow” from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. John made a clickable image poll to help students visualize the plot triangle, and asked them to point out where a certain line from the novel belonged on the continuum:

plottriangleThis time the clickable image poll acted as more of a quiz, and led to a deeper discussion of plot points.

2. Take advantage of in-app options to create variety.

John uses almost every Poll Everywhere poll type available. He uses the word cloud option for a reflective, “What did you learn?” poll, pausing to click on responses and talk about them as they come in. “That has such a profound impact on the audience connecting. It keeps the stream from becoming too rapid,” he says.

He also uses both multiple choice polls and open response polls, depending on the situation.

photo 1


3. Leave room for plot twists.

John takes a planned/unplanned approach to class sessions. “I’m an improvisational kind of teacher. I want to respond to the rhythm of the class.” He usually creates one or two polls ahead of time, but there are often two or three more that he whips up at the last second, as the momentum of student responses takes a turn. That’s one of the most appealing charms of Poll Everywhere, as far as he’s concerned. “In zero to ten seconds, I can have a poll live and on the board. I’ve never seen anything else that fast and easy.”

4. Dream up shiny, new uses for your favorite apps.

Some of John’s include:

Six-word memoir poll: It’s an exercise in diction, precision, creativity and economy. Write your life in six words, and post it to the poll. Discuss.


The 20-word thesis poll: It’s a simple idea, but a brilliant implementation. Simply put, each student boils down the thesis of his essay into 20 words or less, and posts it in an open-response poll.  “I tell them, ‘Look up at the screen. It’s amazing that you have this access to each other’s writing process!’”

And that leads us to the next strategy…

5. Smash apps like a mad scientist.

After John’s students post their thesis statements to Poll Everywhere, John copies them all over to a single Google Doc. Then he shares it with the whole class. Everyone offers anonymous feedback on each thesis.

Some of John’s other favorite spots to drop Poll Everywhere responses are:

  •, which analyzes the average word length, word occurrence rates, and reading level of your work
  •, which tells you which famous author your work resembles
  •, which points out long sentences, adverbs, and passive voice, so you can edit like a pro

6. Keep moving.

Honors English at Brophy runs at a brisk pace, thanks to great technology and John’s endlessly adaptable teaching methods. And that speed is part of the reason students tune in.

“I say, ‘Look at the screen,’ and they’re on board– they’re fast.” Embracing the new, smashing apps, turning on a dime… All these things create an educational environment almost any high schooler could thrive in.

How do you bring novelty and adaptability into your courses?