Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Transforming learning

Today we are having Student-Led Conferences at my school. For those who are unsure what this process involves, the conference involves students leading their parents through evidence of their learning. The students are responsible for discussing and demonstrating their work and progress with their parents and it is an opportunity for them to report to their parents the skills and attributes they have learnt over the school year. I really enjoy this process as it allows the parents who don't always get the opportunity to get into the classroom a chance to see what has been happening. It also allows the students to demonstrate some of the understanding they've developed by taking an active role in the process. Although this isn't a time for parent meetings with the teachers, there is an expectation that the teacher will be available to welcome and acknowledge the families when they arrive.

One of the things that the students could share was the work they had been doing during Literature Circles. After discussing and reading their books over a period of 3-4 weeks, the students created a book report style presentation using an on-line tool called Wevideo. The students were introduced to the Wevideo tool as a way to contribute to the school community through the recommendation and review of the different literature they have read. As the tool is collaborative and hosted on-line, it has benefits over other movie making programs that are only hosted on a singular computer. With Wevideo the students can share resources and ideas as they create their responses. All of the groups first discussed the elements of a book review and highlighted specific aspects that would relate to their audience. One example that they came up with was that in order to keep the viewer engaged the project shouldn't be longer than 2-3 minutes. Each group then planned out what their project would consist of and the order that it would follow on storyboards. Once they were satisfied that they had identified exactly what they needed to include, and why, they were able to begin the process of creating their movie review. The movie making process involves the students selecting text, images, music and other effects to create a review of the book they had read. These movies are then going to be displayed in the Library as advertisements for the other students in the school.

During a discussion I had with one of the parents, they were referring to the Wevideo part of the process when they said 'this is really just the icing on top, wouldn't you agree?'. I had to answer that I definitely disagreed with that statement and was grateful for the opportunity to explain why I didn't hold the same perspective. If I think back to when I was in Primary School, a book review meant that I had to read a book and write a description about what the storyline consisted of, whether or not I enjoyed it and if I could choose to read any other books by the same author. This was handed into the teacher who marked it and gave it back to me. By completing the Wevideo version of this the students are still required to add their personal thoughts and opinions on their book. Additionally, they are required to consider which music, images and text best represents the book. There is a whole new layer of meta-cognitive processes being asked of them in order to produce a good book review.

Not only does this learning experience require more from the students at the cognitive level, it also provides them with an authentic audience that will be viewing their products. Recent research into neuroscience has uncovered a wealth of evidence supporting the notion that the brain learns best in context. By making the purpose of this task clear for the students, they were able to better understand the work that they were required to do.

The idea that we use Wevideo, or any form of technology, for these things simply as a way to 'prettify' students' work is misguided. Clearly there are additional and sometimes new skills and processes that are introduced with the use of technology. It is not simply enhancing the products of student learning, in many cases it is totally transforming the entire learning process. The viewpoint of technology as a 'distractor to learning' is rooted in the past. Students are responsive to technology, and learning the appropriate skills required to use it effectively are no longer a choice, they are life skills.

Quad Blogging action research

Quad Blogging is an activity which involves four classes communicating together by commenting on each other’s work. The process works by each class taking it in turns to comment on each other’s work. In advance, the teachers nominate one class to be the focus each week and students from the other three classes browse through the work providing quality comments as they go. Then the focus rotates to the next class and you carry on in that pattern. 

Over the past four weeks my class has been involved in a quad blogging action research project that has included students from Grades 3 - 5 from schools in Thailand, USA, Czech. Republic and Switzerland. Along with Maggie Hos-McGrane (the IT Team Leader in the Elementary school), who has been acting in a coaching role for me and my students, we have guided the students through the processes involved with the quad blog. During this time we have been observing, discussing and researching whether or not this experience can improve the writing skills of students, and offer new ideas and insights for teachers into the instruction of writing in (and out of!) their classrooms.

Quad Blogging Trailer from langwitches on Vimeo.

Some potential roadblocks that were suggested at the beginning of the project were that whether or not I would be able to incorporate blogging experiences into my daily language time in the classroom. Good blogging requires first  having to read the posts you are looking at before you decide either what to comment on, or whether or not this post might inspire or encourage you to write a post of your own. Luckily, I didn't find it difficult to dedicate time in my schedule to allow for reading of the blogs. I found that the skills required for quad blogging are transferrable to other forms of writing so didn't see this as an 'extra' thing to add onto the timetable. My students were enthusiastic about reading their peers' blogs because they had an authentic purpose and and also made personal connections throughout the quad blogging process.

The writing side of the experience related to the reading in the sense that many of my students wanted to leave comments on people's blogs that they'd viewed before, or if that person had written on their blog previously. By having a contextual purpose for their writing, they not only thought carefully about what they were writing (in terms of content), but they also showed great enthusiasm to write. Many students chose to comment on several other students' blogs as well as their designated buddy. 

We were also able to refer to two rubrics that highlighted some important aspects of both blogging and commenting. These rubrics allowed the students to self-extend their own writing by reflecting on whether or not they had included all elements that were required to be an 'expert blogger'. Several students also commented in their reflection that they felt that by having the rubric accessible to them (I posted it on the class blog), they were able to take their time and think about what certain things meant. This helped them to understand more about blogging. 

The students also reflected on some other things that they felt like the process helped to improve their writing: 

  • "It allowed me to get some more feedback about my writing"
  • "It helped me to learn new words"
  • "I improved at writing because I had to make sure my spelling and grammar were aways correct because everyone was reading it"
  • "I became much better at keeping a conversation going, which I wasn't good at before"
  • " I was able to make some connections to my other writing. Like, when I write a story and in the story there is some information about something, it's like in blogging when I make a hyperlink to another blog post"
  • "It helped me to read some other blog posts so I could see what good writing looked like"

Although at the start of this project I predicted that it would help my students to improve their writing skills, I never expected it to be this successful. The comments and conversations provided by my students showed to me the widespread impact that this has had on their writing. By providing a real purpose for the students, the volume of their writing increased dramatically. Perhaps not as much for the students in my class who were already prolific writers, but for those who are sometimes reluctant to write it gave them a great opportunity and purpose. It also incorporated several other useful skills, such as meta-cognition, time management and collaboration. By having this during the second half of the year, I was able to ensure that my students were tech-savvy enough to be able to self-monitor their own blogs, although I believe that this could also have been done during the first half of  the year as most students are familiar and capable with this sort of technology - it's part of their everyday life. 

Having the IT help was certainly beneficial. I'm reasonably competent with the technology we were using so this allowed Maggie to take on more of an observing role, which was great for the assessment process. She was able to capture the students on video going through the processes in real time and this helped to provide a great insight into their thoughts and understandings. She also went through each student's blog and took screen shots of each of their comments. This allowed us to compare their writing at the beginning and end of the process - and the results were clear to see. However, for those teachers not confident with this sort of technology then this coaching role would look different.

Although I would have previously already recommended quad blogging to any teacher, now I am thinking that we should be really insisting that something along the lines of this sort of learning experience really should happen in classrooms. The benefits were clear to see and I'm looking forward to continuing this with other classes that I've connected with before.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A dividing inquiry

This morning my students tackled a problem that required them to use a variety of skills and processes they have recently been working with. You might be able to see in the picture below that they had to find a way to split up some distances of a relay race. The race was 26km long and they could choose as many runners as they want as long as it was between 3 and 10 (including those numbers).

I encouraged them to start off by using one of their problem solving strategies - identifying the key words. 

It was decided that the key information was: 

  • The total distance was 26km.
  • There had to be between 3 - 10 runners.
  • Each runner had to run an equal distance.
  • We had to be as accurate as possible with our answer.
The students then set to work with a partner in order to find out a possible answer for this problem. Although we have recently been investigating division, fractions and decimals, I didn't give any indication to the students that they might need to use these skills for this problem. I was interested to hear the some of the questions and comments that arose during their discussions:

- "How are we going to break them up?"
- "We should find an equation that goes into six. Nine goes better."
- "You have to halve it. I did five and a half and I'm left over with five."
- "Argghh....we've got leftovers! What if we try four?"
- "Four doesn't work, does two?" "Two is below three so we can't use it"
- "Something has to divide into 26"
- "We need to do fours." "But 26 isn't into the four times table"
- "I tried seven, its impossible"
- "Let's go through the tables and see which works. It has to be equal. If we use the fours then we have two left over."

The students used a variety of strategies to organise their thinking. Some created tables, some glued their work to their page so they could keep track of them and others cut out their sheet to group the kms together.

From here, some students became stuck and needed some thinking time in order to go any further. A popular strategy was to try and add more kms onto the race in order to make the groups fit exactly with their chosen number of runners. Others started to make some connections between what they had learned previously and  where they could go next:

- "We can change the numbers. The numbers can be parts of kms too."
- "You could break one km into three and then the other one into three."
- "We can split a km in half and make it meters."
- "We can use some from this one and some from the other one."
- "Can we use numbers like 4.5? Can we use decimals?"

These statements kicked the investigation up a level. Students realised that it didn't have to divide by 26 equally in order to work and began exploring the possibilities. Before too long we had solutions using 3, 4 and 6 runners. These groups organised their leftovers into fractions and distributed them accordingly so that each runner ran the same distance each. In order to achieve the accuracy component of the lesson, I challenged some of the groups to explore ways that they could convert their fractions into decimals so that the runners would know exactly how far they would have to run.

We finished up by discussing why each group could calculate a different answer. One of the understanding goals for this unit of work is that students can see that all numbers can be broken up into smaller amounts, and that this can be done through many different strategies. Today allowed them to use their knowledge of fractions, decimals and/or division strategies. It was good to see that the students are well on their way down the track with this. It was also a good opportunity to see the students bring their problem solving strategies into play and gain more experience working collaboratively with their peers.