Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Country Visit Scrapbooks

While I only see my students once a week for 25 minutes, my preferred way of teaching is through projects. Therefore, for my second grade classes this month, I planned a small project to tie into their classroom study of different cultures. I knew I had to make the project manageable in a short period of time, but still meaningful.

The project was to create a scrapbook about your visit to another country. To get them in the mindset of traveling someplace and what it involves, we began this project by creating a timeline of what they would need to do to plan a trip. We discussed modes of transportation, what to pack for different climates, and what they might need to plan ahead of time. The following week, we took a "trip" to the school library to look at books about different countries. Each student picked a country and found a book or two about it.

Since the reading level of second graders varies, and the books were not all geared to their level, I chose to instead focus on the pictures in the books. Their instructions were to find pictures of things that are different from what we would see here in our community. This higher order thinking skill has them evaluate what they are looking at, instead of just looking for random pictures. Once they found a picture, they wrote down a title for the picture, and then described it: How is it different than our community? I created a worksheet for this that you can find here. With a little guidance, this was something they could successfully do.

The next week, we returned to the computer lab to create our scrapbook. We used Power Point as the students were familiar with it and it has a large volume of clip art. I instructed the students to first type the name of their country into the clip art gallery search box, and then look for pictures that were similar to what they found last week. We discussed that they will probably not find the exact same picture, but there could be something close. They could also search for something in the picture, like chopsticks if they had written about a family eating dinner in Japan.

Each page of their scrapbook had to have a title, bullet point descriptions of the picture (they could look at their worksheet) and the picture. If they ran out of pictures that they had already found, they could use the clip art gallery just like they did the book. Look for pictures from their country, find one that shows something different than here, and then describe it. Those who finished the required amount of slides, could add background colors and colored text, just like a scrapbook. This part was especially exciting for them.

Each second grade classroom is doing some type of country study on their own. This activity was an excellent introduction and the teachers can have the students show their favorite page to the class.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The "Snowboarding" Class

This year has been a transformational year at school for our 8th grade son. Up until now, he diligently did all his homework and had good grades. That is no longer the case and his grades reflect this. I am not sure what happened, but I know that he did not stop learning. This might sound contradictory, but the learning he did was outside of school, aligned with his passions for skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX riding. Now anyone who teaches middle school might know that group of skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX riding boys and girls as the ones who are not dumb, but maybe are not applying themselves the way they could. However if you could see them outside of school, they are not wasting away in front of the television, instead they are learning. They learn from each other, they learn from experiments and practice, and they learn from You Tube. They videotape themselves to study their performance and share with others.

The one saving grace for my son this year is that he has a Tech Ed class every day. This is the one class where he has a high “A” for a grade. Why is this? It is because it mirrors what he does outside of school. Outside of school he builds ramps out of wood and snow. He practices the physics of stunts. (As twelve stitches in his mouth will attest to.) He fine tunes the wheels on his skateboard and bike. He changes the degree on the bindings of his snowboard. When he was bored, he takes apart his entire bike and puts it back together. His Tech Ed class provides him the opportunity to do the same thing at school. In fact, he and his partner built a water-powered hydraulic arm that had to lift balls over a wall. They built it in such a way that it could take two balls at once and thus they beat the old school record for number of balls moved in a minute by a large amount. As a result, he asked his teacher for, and received, a student copy of their CAD software to use at home.

All of this has me thinking, what would it be like to take this group of kids and let them have their own class? In this class they would focus on the non-traditional sports and then dream. Their topic: Build a better _______. They could fill in this blank with snowboard, skateboard, BMX bike, ramp, rail, clothing line, wheel set, tool to fix it, helmet, glove, shoe (we go through a lot of shoes), skate park, trick bike, etc. The list is endless. They would learn language arts, math, science and physics in a meaningful way as they collaboratively experimented with their designs. They would have to research the competition and study up on the business world of these sports. Once they have designed a better _____, they could write sample magazine articles about it, persuade people to buy it through sample advertisements and letters to companies, contact current industry executives to learn more about their business, and learn the economics of manufacturing. Again, there is no limit to the list. I am still trying to fit history in there, but they could definitely discuss the different cultures of the world and where their target market would be. They could also discuss why their sports are not mainstream and why skateboarders tend to have a bad name.

While this class won’t happen for my son, I still like to think about the possibilities for future students to bring their passions to school and learn academics in a real-world context. This is not limited to the skateboarding/snowboarding crowd either; I am sure there are many other passions that students enjoy that could fit this model.

Addendum: I just watched a TEDxTalks episode with Gary Stager who's quote "Young people have remarkable capacity for intensity" underscores the point of this blog post. Below is his presentation which focuses on individual learning projects.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PLN - Reading Blogs

This week our PLN meeting will discuss Blogs and the benefits of reading other people's blogs. The above Prezi outlines why it is beneficial to to do so. Below is a brief transcript of my presentation.
First of all, PLN stands for personal learning network. All three words are equally important, but the ultimate goal is learning from each other. Reading blogs provides a way to do this. Blogs seem to fall into two categories in education, philosophical blogs and classroom based blogs. The philosophical blogs tend to pose a question, offer opinions and generally get you to think about an issue. Classroom specific blogs show you what someone is doing in their classroom. 

How do you find blogs to read? I find almost all of my blogs on Twitter. People either tweet their blog post, or tweet blog posts that they have read and enjoyed. Also, when I am reading blog posts, they often link to other blogs. I have created a list of blogs to read here. Just this morning on Twitter, Tom Whitby started a new hashtag #BLGF. When people want to share a blog to follow, they will use this hashtag. If you search by this hashtag, you will see blogs others have recommended.

The biggest challenge is finding a way to keep up on the reading. Of course you are not going to be able to read every post from every blog you read, but you may find you have some favorites. First, if I like a blog, I tag it in my Delicious account. If I really like it and want to receive all their latests posts, I look for an email subscription. By signing up for it, I can receive their lastest posts in my email. This tends to work well for me as I check my email often. Another way to receive blog posts is to sign up for an RSS feed. This is similar to an email subscription except instead of going in your email, it goes into your RSS reader. There are many options for RSS readers such as Google Reader, or your individualized Yahoo page, but they all require you to set up an account and check it regularly. 

Once you have been reading blogs for awhile, I encourage you to leave comments on them. This provides an additional layer to our learning as we are reaching out, sharing our opinion and letting others learn from us. Our next PLN meeting will discuss how to set up your own blog.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Money Practice

Near the beginning of the school year when I met with my second grade teachers to plan our technology time lessons, they asked for help reinforcing money counting skills with their students. While I could have just sent the students to a website to practice counting money, I chose instead to incorporate some student choice and collaboration into the lesson.

Using SMART Notebook software, I created two activities, one for counting coins and one for making change. For the counting money exercise, I had all the coins at the top of the page infinitely cloned. The students would drag down any combination of coins they wanted (student choice) and then write down the total. After they did that, they had to ask a neighbor to check their work. Thus, they were not only practicing counting their money, but their neighbor’s as well. I also cloned the page so the students could do ten pages of this activity.

The engagement and motivation were very high with this lesson due to the choices they got to make and also because they could pick any color pen or art pen to write their answer. Even my 8th grade son enjoys doing that! The collaboration added a game-like atmosphere to the activity. For students who finished this quickly, I had a second activity about making change. The premise was similar, but I had a different sentence written on each slide explaining what they bought and how much money they had.

Both activities are great for assessment purposes as the teacher can scroll through each student’s page and see their work. Both files are available for download. I emailed the files to my students, but you could also place them in their directory, or if neither option works in your district, the students can download them from the internet.

Image: 'One thing is not like the others'

Friday, January 14, 2011

Our Pets

This morning I had the opportunity to help with another great Van Meter Merton connection! Our second grade teacher recognized the need for differentiation of her math unit. Three students who knew the material well and did not need to sit through the lesson again were instead assigned an alternative math project. These students created a survey about the pets students have both in their class here at Merton and their friend's class at Van Meter. Each class completed the survey and the three students used the information to create a game for their class to play.

Once the information was collected, the three students created a column graph showing their data results. Using this graph, they then created questions such as "How many more dogs does Van Meter have than Merton?" Each question also had an answer written on the bottom of the card. The rest of the class will be given a copy of the column graph and the questions to play a math game. I came in and helped the three students use Excel to create the column graph and then use Power Point to make question cards. All three students were very engaged and excited about this project! What a great way to make another connection between the two classes!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Humans and the Environment

Part of our third grade social studies unit this month discusses how humans have adapted to their environment. To provide some creativity and critical thinking to this topic, I am having the students create a slide show discussing the damage these adaptations have on our environment. While we are using Power Point, any slide show medium would work. 
We began the lesson with a general class discussion on what humans have added to the environment in order to live here and why, and then what have we taken from the environment in order to live here and why. As the conversation progressed, the ideas flowed! I was especially impressed with one student who knew that we use coal to produce electricity. After the discussion, each student completed a table listing things we have added to/taken from the environment and why. Even though we just discussed this as a class, individual learning does not always take place in this atmosphere. Finally, we shared our lists and took notes from each other.

Each student picked one item from either list to use as the topic of their slide show. The requirements are to have four slides as follows:
  • Title slide
  • Topic slide with information on what their topic consists of and why humans do this
  • Effect on the Environment slide with information on how human actions affect the environment
  • Solutions slide with their recommendations to lesson our impact on the environment.
Possible extensions for this project include researching adaptations animals make to survive or adaptations we would have to make if we lived in other countries of the world. The project was intentionally short as we have four 45-minute class periods and I wanted to leave the fourth class for practicing presentation skills. We are also leaving time to add creativity to our slide shows and collaborate a little within similar topics. So far the students are enthused both about the topic and about creating the slide show!
"Birch Trees in Winter" by lmorowski, 12/2010

"The Mitten" Activities

Our kindergarten classes are reading and comparing two versions of the book “The Mitten”. One is by Jan Brett and the other is by Alvin Tresselt. Our first activity was a Mitten Math activity using a SMART Notebook file. There are ten pages set up for the students to use to create their own addition sentences. They first drag down the number of animals they want on each side of the mitten, and then write the number sentence below. The ability to choose the kind and number of animals to count is exciting for them. The practice writing the numbers with a mouse not only develops mouse skills, but really reinforces how to write the number as it is more difficult to do with a mouse than with a pencil. There is a final page where they can create any picture they want using the animals if they finish the math sentences correctly. Since we did a similar activity with pumpkins at Halloween time, I required that they had to have at least four animals on each side. Additionally, they could not keep repeating the same number sentences. 

In a 45 minute time period, with time to log on to the computers, listen to the instructions and then work, only a few students reached the free draw page (I would continually check their work and ask for corrections.) What is really helpful about using the SMART Notebook file is that each page is saved for you to see. When using physical manipulatives and writing down the number sentences, the manipulatives are rearranged for the next sentence and you can't always check the students work. Additionally, it is easy to have the student correct their mistakes after you check it.

A second activity done to reinforce the storyline of “The Mitten”, help the children create their own version, and learn about creating a slide show (a technology skill), we developed a multi-page Smart Notebook file for them containing all the animals in both stories. The students will draw a mitten, choose an animal to put in it and delete the remaining animals from the page. They will then complete the sentence with the beginning word “The” (capital letter as it starts the sentence and also a spelling word) and the animal’s name to the best of their ability. The title page will include “Illustrated by” their name. Since we do not have a color printer at the moment, we will print the slides two per page, and the students will illustrate all pages with markers or crayons. They will cut around the slides (cutting skills), and assemble the book. We will be starting this activity next week and I plan on allotting two 45 minutes class periods for completion of the computer work. The illustrating and assembly will be done during center time in their classrooms.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Developing Independent Learners

Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to the instructional strategies I use in my classroom. As a technology teacher for grades K-3, I see each class once a week for 45 minutes. After providing the day’s instructions and starting our work time, my students love asking me and their neighbor how to do something. Are my instructions that unclear or do they crave individual instruction?It is probably a combination of both; however, I feel that many students are looking for someone to give them the answer instead of being independent learners. So how do I get them from their preferred method of individual instruction to becoming independent learners who seek out their resources and use them wisely to accomplish the task at hand? 

Last year I taught middle school students and by second semester I had found ways to direct them to become independent learners. Of course all of them were fairly proficient readers and could navigate Moodle really well, but that doesn’t mean I can’t provide similar situations for my younger students; so this week I started something new. Thinking about the directions I had posted on the board last week (fifteen baby steps to find an internet picture, save it and insert it in your work), I instead created a screen-cast video which I posted on my website. The third graders were shown where the video was, how to start and stop it between steps, and on the board I wrote only four directions (the last of which was to “raise your hand when finished”.) As we worked through class, I often redirected them back to the video, even back to specific parts if they were repeating a mistake. Without me answering one question, in the span of a half hour, half the class had finished the assignment. Quite a few of them spent more time than I anticipated writing the three sentences I asked for, and those that didn’t finish will do so next week. How do I measure success? My goal was to reinforce what we did last week by having them do it again on their own. There was definitely a learning curve in learning how to navigate between software programs, but I feel my goal was accomplished because they were successful at inserting pictures without asking me or their neighbor for the directions.

In my view, this is individual instruction and independent learning. Did it meet every student’s learning style? Probably not, I still have work to do on that one. One thing that is clear to me is I need to provide more resources for them to access on their own to find the answer and encourage them to do so. There is one teacher in our school who does a very good job at reminding his students to look for a place where they could find the answer to their question. I admire his style and in the day-to-day flow of my class I need to remember his advice to his students. This is one small step in the right direction to helping my students become independent learners.

As a post-script to this post I also have to think about my lessons and whether or not every student in the class needed to learn how to do this. The students who were able to watch the video and complete the activity were at the right level at the right time to do this - it met their needs. The students who didn't finish ranged from those who were almost there, they just needed a little more time, to those who were really struggling and therefore this activity was beyond their needs. I think that during the next class I will offer to let those that didn't finish decide if they want to learn how to finish. If not, they can stop and join the rest of the class in the next activity.

Beyond Skype

Previously I have written about the unique opportunity our school has to connect with another grade school in Iowa. So far we have paired up two kindergarten classes, two second grade classes and one third grade class, with additional pairings to come. Our students remain excited about the opportunity as do our teachers. We have gone beyond the initial Skype session to create pen pal Wikis, a book club Wiki and a Gingerbread "exchange". My post on our combined blog page details more about the benefits of being involved in this multi-school connection. (And is reprinted below.)

I can't say enough good things about this connection and the possibilities I see for increased student engagement and learning. If you ever have the opportunity to try this, even with just one class, I really encourage you to do so!

My original post from

As I was helping one of our teachers get ready for her Skype session, she mentioned that someone asked her the value of our Skype. That made me stop and think, because the minute we started planning this connection, I could see the value of the relationship and I even had curricular ideas popping into my head! I also knew the collaborative effort of all our teachers would bring more ideas!

How does this Skype benefit student learning? At first I was going to look at the core curriculum areas that will springboard off our Skype session; but as I started writing this, there is no way to do this without simultaneously discussing the 21st Century skills our students are gaining. The original Skype itself helped foster relationships in our global community as the students are seeing similar classroom situations and meeting new students, some with the same name as theirs! This reinforces the connection with the other class and thus reinforces all the learning that results from this connection. Our Wild Thing videos were a great way to introduce our personalities to each other and a great spin off from the award-winning book “Where the Wild Things Are.” These wild things can now be used to help the students work on developing word choice, by describing their picture through Voice Thread or some other applications.

Our second graders are already writing back and forth to each other as pen pals using a Wiki. This is a great reinforcement of language arts skills while learning to communicate with those outside our community. They are learning about students in other communities (social studies) and using map skills to locate the other school in relationship to ours.

This Wiki will springboard into collaborative projects in many areas. We are already talking about combined problem solving in math, surveying each other to create graphs, and creating a collaborative story where each class contributes alternating pieces of the story. We will start with whole class activities and eventually, the students can do these types of learning experiences on their own with their pen pal. The third grade is planning to create book clubs through their Wiki based on a chosen set of books. Our kindergarteners are exchanging gingerbread men through the mail and photographing their visit to the other school. This will extend off into literature and creative art projects as well.

As educators we know that the greatest learning occurs when there is a personal connection, a personal motivation, to our lessons. The relationships we are building between the two schools are a springboard to all the curricular activities we will do together and I look forward to each and every one of them!

Supporting Emerging Writers with Technology

Our first graders have had one month of school under their belt and we are eager to support their academic curriculum in our technology classes. An important skill to learn in first grade is reading and writing sentences. To create an engaging, motivating lesson in this skill, we developed an "All About Me" lesson using Power Point and clip art.

To promote both reading and writing skills, we made sentence starter cards for the students to use. These cards focused on about six sentences structured different ways. For example, one card might say "My favorite animal is _______."; while another card might say "_________ is my favorite animal." Student choice was a very large factor of our lesson as they not only chose which sentence to use, but also in what order they would like to put the sentences in their Power Point. Additionally, all of this provided movement around the room.

They were taught the basic skills of completing a title slide, inserting a new slide and inserting clip art. Because clip art searches only work with accurately spelled words, we provided picture dictionaries for the students to use when completing their sentence. This also provided movement around the room, and student choice of which clip art picture to use.

The students were so enthused to be able to pick their own sentences, and were very motivated to write a sentence because they could then find clip art to go with it. Once they had four slides completed, we printed them out in handout format. The lesson lasted two days and the engagement lasted right down to printing the slides and taking them with them, definitely a success!

This lesson supports the 21st Century Skills of creating a product, problem solving the use of Power Point and clip art, allowing for student choice, and collaboration by asking their neighbors for help. It helped support emerging readers and writers in an engaging way.

"Laptop" by lmorowski 5/2010

Blogging in the Classroom

For the past two weeks, I have been helping my second grade teachers create classroom blogs for their students to use in class. Kidblog is a great place to create blogs for younger students as they can use it with parental consent and it also allows options for privacy settings, including having the teacher moderate all posts and comments.

We started out in computer class by just talking about what blogs are and then looking at one. As a class, we wrote a comment on one of the posts we read. Then, I showed the students how to log in and respond to their teacher's blog post (which was a question they had to answer). To help the teachers continue using blogs on their own, I sent them the following ideas:

If you work on your blog once a week, I think that is great! Right now, your students are commenting in response to a question you have posed to them - which is excellent practice learning how to use the blog. What I would suggest is to now write a longer post of your own, and have them comment on the content of your post. This will require some explanation as to what our goal in commenting is. (Evaluative, agreeing/disagreeing with the topic, questions for the author) This will need reinforcing, so you could pick a blog from anywhere in the world and comment on it together as an example.

After that, you could have them write a post of their own based on a question/topic you write on the board. That would be their title, and their response would be their post. You could have their posts come to you for approval first if you are concerned about spelling. This would be a great opportunity to have a parent help them go over it for editing. Once you have done a couple of posts, then you might feel comfortable letting them comment on each others' posts. It is nice to comment relatively soon after blogging for timely feedback, but I know how time goes. So, you could alternate weeks - one week blog, the next comment. They can always re-read their post. I think they would be excited to read the comments on their posts!

Then, I would suggest having them read posts from another class and leave individual comments - a great center idea using a parent to check spelling etc. If you are ever comfortable with the idea, you can share your blog with your parents, and the world through Twitter and/or blog sharing lists .

At some point, it would be great to see them posts projects on their blogs - scanned pictures, videos etc. The evaluative comments are really a great teaching tool and seeing everyone's projects reinforces mastery of the curriculum content.

Where does this fit in with 21st Century learning? We are writing/producing for a larger audience than just our teacher/class, possibly even globally. There is the thought process that goes into writing a post about a topic (your topic/questions should be higher level in nature) and the evaluative process of leaving comments, again higher level thinking skills. Both of these require critial thinking. As their skills in blogging improve, their topic choice can be more student driven. Blogs are a real world application/skill. As we heard today, businesses are using blogs; also learning the digital citizenship aspect of commenting on others work is much needed. We have all seen so many negative, explicit filled comments on the internet these days. Your topics/posts can be curriculum based finding another, hopefully engaging, method of instilling mastery of subject matter.

Some great resources exist on the internet. This teacher has her second grade students set up their own blogs and explains how she does it. This Live Binder is full of ways to use blogs in the classroom. Starting small is necessary. As you and your students become more comfortable with the process, the possibilities are endless!

Skype Connections

This week I have had the amazing opportunity to connect our classes with a school in Van Meter, Iowa through Skype. We have a combined blog where all the teachers involved can post their reflections. (My original post there is copied below.)

During the Skype call, we read the book "Where the Wild Things Are" to both classes and now we are going to create our own wild things using the website Once these are made, we will put them in a video that we will send to our partner class. This is our way of doing an introduction video without worrying about showing students faces since we want this video to be public for others to see and learn from.

Why do I feel this was a valuable experience for our students? The excitement on the student's faces when they not only saw the other class on the Smartboard, but actually talked to them is why I feel this was valuable. As our third grade students introduced themselves, the other third grade would wave and say "Hi ___!" What a powerful feeling for a third grader! This will be etched in their mind for a long time. This personal experience/memory helps the mind retain the information. When we created our wild things for the introductory video, I asked the class to record a verbal greeting for the beginning of the video. Their choice? "Look at the wild things we made!" They were proud of what they had made, and were conscious that it was being sent to another audience. Again, all of this creates an experience that helps the mind retain the information.

While the reading of our book was mostly done as an activity for the Skype call, we will continue to build off that activity. For example, the students can use their picture as a springboard for descriptive writing. We can put the pictures into a Voice Thread and have the students record themselves describing their wild thing, with the emphasis being on strong, descriptive words. They can then view the other students' picture/recording and see what words they used. This is learning from each other in an engaging way, two more paths for the mind to retain information.

Now, replace the book and pictures with curriculum material. When the material is presented, experienced and used in project extensions in the above ways, the ability for the student to internalize and remember the information is much greater than if we had used the traditional lecture, notes, test method; and I believe that is our ultimate goal.

My original post from

As I look back on what I have done this week, the Skype sessions I have helped coordinate with Van Meter, Iowa classes and Merton, Wisconsin classes stand out above anything else I have done. Yes, I have really tried to create some engaging, thought provoking, 21st Century lessons for my classes this week, but what is more 21st Century then connecting with other people in our world!

I have made these connections on many levels. Working with Shannon Miller is an amazing experience. Her knowledge and enthusiasm are spurring me on to be a better teacher. Working more closely with the grade level teachers in my own school has been a great lesson for me. I get to see them relate to their students in a whole new way and learn by watching them. Listening to teachers at Van Meter, and their passion for their students, brings out my own enthusiasm. Most importantly, I get to see our students connect with students almost 400 miles away, and get really excited about it!

Our second grade students were so excited at the end of the Skype call to have met their new friends in Iowa! I knew they couldn’t wait to do it again. Our third graders were so involved in questions for their partner class they didn’t want to stop! Our Kindergarten class couldn’t stop looking at the class on the Smartboard. I don’t think they even looked at the book we read very much!

So what does this boil down to? The content we covered (reading “Where the Wild Things Are”) took second place to the relationships we were establishing. Building global relationships is a 21st Century skill. The students were engaged in their new friends and the ability to communicate with them. Human beings have a need to communicate. We now have the technology to communicate beyond the classroom and establish relationships that help us learn, grow and become global citizens in a way never possible before.

Yes, we will continue to incorporate the curriculum into our connections. But it is the connection that is making the curriculum more meaningful and engaging. I am really proud of all our teachers who are involved in the Van Meter – Merton Connection. I am even more proud of our students for their interest, enthusiasm and desire to continue our new relationships.

Vision of Tech Use in the Classroom

Thanks to some great people that I am following on Twitter, I have learned many new ways to use technology in the classroom over the last two months, so much in fact, that I am overwhelmed. As I try to sort through all this great information and prepare myself to help the teachers at my school use more technology, I have been trying to find a way to organize my thoughts. I have made a few attempts at this and have re-written this blog a couple of times (and could keep revising it, but here it is!)
The thought finally came to me that I need to go back to what I learned on the first day of my Philosophy of Education class: when planning a lesson, keep in mind content, process and product. Once I started looking at organizing all the uses for technology according to this principal, things started to fall in place. Below I will attempt to explain my vision.

Authenticity: As I wrote in a previous blog , I strongly believe that we need to use technology in the classroom in an authentic manner, the same way you would use it in your life. If you need to contact someone for information, you use email, Twitter, Facebook, cellphones etc. If you want to research information you look for reliable web sites, videos, books, wikis and blogs (which give you great ideas!). If you want to present information to someone you keep your audience in mind and create a blog post, web site, slide show or video. How we pick which one to use is based on personal preference and our audience. Students should be able to do the same. Having every student work on Photo Story at the same time just to say you used technology is missing the goal of authenticity and will eventually bore students. Authenticity also helps differentiate. 

Content: What information will the student learn? With the explosion of resources on the internet, even when students research the same topic, they will find different information. Once they begin their research, different aspects of the topic will appeal to them and they may go off in different directions. Using technology to obtain content can be done by using different search engines, finding primary sources online, watching videos, or using social networking to contact experts.

Process: How will students learn the information? In addition to the above mentioned research, students will need to organize their information with graphic organizers, timelines, online notes and binders, and bookmark tags. They can use interactives to practice skills; they can share information and ideas and comment on them with each other; and they can listen to books and podcasts online. Backchanneling and blogging can be used to have real time discussions, while Skype and wikis can help connect us to other classrooms around the world. 

Product: How will students use the information? When they have all their information students can create many different products to showcase/present this information including blogs, posters, cartoons, timelines, videos, animations, digital stories, graphs, books and podcasts. What they use depends on student choice and their target audience; then they can share their product with the world.
Finally, don’t forget higher order thinking skills. Are you using technology primary on the lower end of Blooms? Or are you offering opportunities to use it more often on the higher end for comparing, evaluating, creating? As you may have noticed, many technologies can be used in multiple places. My goal is to help teachers be aware of when they can use technology, decide which one is the best fit and support them in using it. This is an ongoing, ever-changing process that we are involved in, and hopefully this post helps you organize your own uses for technology.

Success versus Failure in the Classroom

"Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." - Bill Gates.

We learn so much by our failures. It is through trial and error that we come up with the creative solutions. Yet as a teacher, how do we make students comfortable with failure? (Not necessarily the "F" grade, but the mistakes we make along the way.) When I walk around the classroom offering comments on student's work, they usually trend toward the positive, probably because when I offer suggestions for improvement or change, sometimes the students get defensive. When I look at times when others have given me suggestions for improvement or change, I felt defensive also! How can we change this?

At the end of each class, I ask the students to share what problems they encountered and how they overcame them. I always praise their ability to do so. I sometimes do this when I conference with them. Although when I conference with them I am usually asking them to rate their work. They are pretty honest in doing this and sometimes I tell them they did better than they think.

Would requiring revisions take the sting out of "not doing something right"? So often we grade only once and that grade is what they end up with. Is that the cause of their fear of failure? Or is it ridicule by their classmates when they don't know an answer or when they make a mistake? I know my middle school students love to laugh/share the "Fail" pictures/websites, does that contribute to the climate of being afraid to fail?

I don't really have the answer here. As the leader in the classroom, I definitely need to lead by example though. How should I encourage success through mistakes?

Teaching for Tomorrow: Incorporating Technology and Student Choice

I have just finished reading an excellent book, Teaching for Tomorrow by Ted McCain. His thoughts on introducing problem based learning into the classroom resonate strongly with me, as I have discussed in my prior blog post where I proposed that problem based learning should be combined with project based learning. To truly prepare students for their future, we need to provide them with problem-solving skills which will help them be successful in life as well as in their careers. As Ted McCain states frequently throughout the book, we are graduating students to be "highly educated, useless people."

Over the course of the last year, I have unknowingly applied some of what Mr. McCain is talking about into my own classroom. Maybe it is because I am a business teacher, or maybe it is because of my ten years experience in the corporate world, but I like to provide authentic situations for my students. Though I did not incorporate as many situations as I would have liked, it did provide some problem-solving situations. Did my students successfully completely them entirely on their own? No. Did they struggle with parts of them? Yes. Was it therefore worthwhile? Definitely.

There are two main points I am left thinking about after reading this book. The first is incorporating technology. There is a big push in schools to incorporate Web 2.0 applications into our classrooms for purposes of engagement, meeting different learning styles and to replicate life outside of school. However, I am of the feeling that technology should be used when technology should be used! We should not be using it artificially just to say we are using technology. For example, if a student needs to ask a question of a professional, they should be able to use email. When they want to create a presentation, they should be able to choose from a variety of software and Web 2.0 applications to do so. I believe in making them aware of what is available, but then letting them choose which technology they want to use (I have them justify their choice - another learning opportunity). When we move towards project based learning, we need to be able to have the technological resources needed for the students to work on their project authentically. Through Twitter and a list-serve I am a part of, I have been finding many great web sites from free CAD design, to free web design, to many slide show/poster/multimedia applications. Instead of instructing our students to use certain ones at certain times, we need to be able to help them find the ones they need when they need them, show them the ones we already know about and of course let them find their own!

Mr. McCain has many good examples of problem-based learning in his book; however, they all seem to be teacher led. The teacher has created the problem and requirements, and all the students work on this same problem. The one benefit to this is how he creates problems with certain requirements that mirror the business world. How can we incorporate student choice, which is a large part of project-based learning, yet still get the authentic experiences of the business world? Or do we need to worry about this? Is it enough that the students are solving problems in their project, so they have an idea of how to approach a problem, which would carry over into future situations, whether they are personal (repairing something you own) or career related (working on something for a client.) I don't have the answer to this, but am inclined to agree with the latter view that solving any type of problem helps you approach future problems.

Comic Strip Maker

I found this comic strip maker that is great for lower grades. There is no account set up required, and they have options that let you select characters with different emotions, objects and sizes. Finally, you can print right it right away and/or email it to someone.

I used this with my third grade classes as an extension to their learning about communities and invasive species. The students were immediately engaged as I showed them the site. Their favorite part: selecting characters. We discussed how comic strips are organized - as a dialogue between people and why the consistency of characters is needed. They immediately caught on to the concept.

This activity reinforced mastery of a subject they were learning about in a engaging way. Student interest drove the cast of characters and dialogue. Most of them had read comic strips/books and were familiar with the real world application of this activity. Finally, it reinforced their writing skills in the area of dialogues between subjects. Despite a few technical glitches, they were all enthused about the project, with some working past the class ending time to finish.

“Education or Entrepreneurship: Do You Have to Make a Choice?” or PBL vs PBL

The Read Write Start article "Education or Entrepreneurship: Do You Have to Make a Choice?" talks about raising the next generation of entrepreneurs. As a business teacher who has spent over ten years in the corporate world prior to teaching, this is a subject that greatly interests me. Prior to seeing this, I happened to read an article from Education World that compared project-based learning to problem-based learning. Later on, I read another article that placed project-based learning high on the creativity scale and problem-based learning low on the same scale. My first thoughts were why can’t we combine both project-based and problem-based learning - a process which emulates the business world?

From a business standpoint, we want our employees to be able to think creativity to solve the unending “problems” that arise in our daily work. These “problems” could range anywhere from handling a customer complaint, to building a part to fix a machine, to stopping the flow of oil from a damaged well. All situations involve being able to think through a problem, find some creative solutions and apply those solutions. Prior to being able to solve the problem, we need knowledge about the situation. We also need to be able to present our solution to somebody. Basically, we need to have the skills developed by project based learning which include:

  • Collecting and analyzing information
  • Conducting research using multiple sources of information
  • Applying a number of academic disciplines
  • Drawing on a broad range of knowledge and skills
  • Working on a project over an extended period of time
  • Designing and developing a product, presentation, or performance that can be used or viewed by others.
Additionally, we need skills developed by problem based learning which include:

  • Determining and stating what the problem is
  • Identifying the information needed and the resources to be used to find that information
  • Developing a possible solution;
  • Analyzing and refining the solution;
  • Presenting the final solution, orally and/or in writing.
(Above lists from Education World article)

Cameron Herold talks about nurturing entrepreneurial traits like tenacity, leadership, introspection, networking, and sales. When a student starts working on a project that involves solving a problem, they will encounter many difficulties (tenacity and introspection), have an invested interest in what they are doing (which helps develop leadership), need to collaborate with peers and professionals (networking) and need to present their final solution (sales). Their creativity in solving the problem may even lead to new products for the marketplace.
Most entrepreneurs start a business based around something they are interested in and have a passion for. By letting students choose their own projects, we are starting on this path. The research, problem solving, creative thinking, communication and innovation that is developed through project-based/problem-based learning is a start in getting our students headed down the road to entrepreneurship. (And don’t those sound like 21st Century Skills!)

In future posts I will talk about project ideas, some of which will involve problem solving, but all of which have real world applications.