Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Kinect?

Earlier this week I attended a presentation by the Colorado Department of Education supporting the transition to the new Colorado Academic Standards. The presenters outlined working toward "deep change" in education as we gradually achieve transformation, changing teaching and learning. The transformation will require new ways of thinking and acting. I was particularly interested in the definition given for mastery. To truly achieve mastery, students must be able to apply and transfer knowledge to new and different situations. Those are lofty and worthwhile goals for the state and I hope to teach long enough to see that transformation take place for our children. In the meantime I am exploring new ways for young children, in the first and second grade, to build knowledge and demonstrate mastery. One extremely engaging tool I am trying is Xbox 360 Kinect. At first glance it may appear that using the system in a classroom is simply playing games, but if you observe young children closely when playing, it becomes quickly apparent that the games often require children to think critically and use problem solving skills. Gaining mastery over their motor skills while making decisions and following directions is a complicated task for six and seven year olds. The games provide many excellent situations for the application and transfer of knowledge. Check out the lesson ideas at Kinect in Education for ideas and watch for many more activities to be posted soon. Simply learning and feeding back information will not be enough in the years ahead. Students will need to make connections and demonstrate the ability to apply what they learn in the real world. Little kids can venture into virtual worlds easily through the use of Kinect games providing delightful and safe environments to try out their learning and growing thinking skills. Even better, the games allow the children to experience collaboration as they work together to play the games and achieve success. Our world is changing at a rapid pace and keeping up with that change in a classroom is challenging. Kinect is an affordable and easily used tool to transform the learning experiences of children. Why Kinect? Why not?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How time changes everything...

Imagine being a teacher sitting at a table with five other passionate educators from around the globe that you have just met, some of whom do not speak English, and being given the task of developing a learning project for students about the global issue of water. That is an opportunity for collaboration and knowledge building at its best and exactly the situation I found myself in over the past week.
Two years ago I began this blog to reflect on the use of changing technology in the classroom. I was "sorting it all out" and looking for direction. Today as I reflect on the experiences of attending the Microsoft Partners In Learning Global Forum in Washington, DC, I realize that I have moved in a new direction entirely. Technology has found its place in my teaching, not as the focus and purpose for lessons, but as the tool set that enables learning not otherwise available to my students. My new focus is the need to provide my students with rich opportunities to build knowledge from student directed, globally connected, meaningful learning activities. Without technology, that would be nearly impossible, but at the center of such learning there will always be people.
Living in a rural area far from a big city, there are few chances for my students to meet face to face with people from other regions of the globe. Although they will likely never meet the educators I planned with last week, they will definitely meet their students online as they share learning that I cannot alone provide. I found myself in situations this week that opened my eyes to the power of allowing students to build knowledge from experiences and reflection rather than lecture and feedback of facts.
Yesterday I had a chance to reflect on the powerful information I had gathered in eventful days at the forum. I had a few hours to fill before my flight and could have gone to Arlington Cemetery to observe the Veteran's Day Ceremony, but instead I chose to walk across the National Mall to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It was in that museum that all the pieces began to fall into place for me. As I listened to the peaceful flute
music playing in the exhibits and read the beautiful thought provoking quotes in the displays I suddenly found meaning in all that was pounding in my head.
The topic of water was intensely important to all of the people I was working with. We revealed vast differences, not in the way water is used by each of us in our regions of the earth, but in how it is obtained. The teachers from Brazil told of water from the Amazon River and an abundance of rain. In Taiwan we learned of rainwater collection. Our friend from Saudi Arabia told of great factories desalinating water from the sea as there are no rivers and little rain. In India we learned of a shortage of freshwater for drinking. I, of course, told of water from our river that we often take for granted. We heard about the growing concern for water shortages that may lead to war as a lack of clean water becomes life threatening.
It was on the flight home that I began to make sense of all that I heard and learned from my new friends. I was looking out the window at the darkness and lights dotting the land of my country below when I recalled the daytime visions from my flight to the forum days earlier. It had been one of those beautifully clear days with few clouds. For several hours I flew over land that looked like a patchwork quilt. Each block of the quilt belongs to someone. I thought of the land so long ago that was inhabited by our native people. Their words of honor, respect, and gratitude to the earth came back to me. It is my sense that long ago they did not think of owning the land, but rather considered themselves to be part of nature and understood their place in the great balance that kept them alive, providing for their needs as they shared with all living creatures. The earth today is visibly divided. Every inch belongs to someone. We have claimed our places and built our fences to protect what belongs to us. Our needs are no longer met by nature around us, but by goods and services that are brought to us from far away places. Rather than sharing the responsibility and recognizing the needs of all, it would seem to me that we are more concerned with making sure that we protect our property and that we get what we need from others. We have lost the reality of being part of nature and protecting the delicate balance. We have become so wrapped up in maintaining our fences that we lose sight of our responsibility to all the people and creatures of this great planet. Meeting them in person, however, made me realize that we all have the same hopes and dreams. I made friends that I am certain I will have for the rest of my life. I am missing them today. I listened to teachers from Europe tell of change in their nations as people from other regions are immigrating to make new homes in their countries. They talked of losing the sense of nation that once existed as they become more diverse in populations. We can all be friends and should be. We can share the land and resources once again.
Time has changed the earth, time has changed my understanding and teaching, and time will hopefully change our world for the better as we become a global nation of friends.
I have twenty small children in my classroom that deserve a chance to learn in the way I did this week. I could go back to class and simply tell them what I learned, but few would actually internalize and find meaning in that. I will instead use technology to connect them to children in faraway places so that they might also find friendship, respect, and understanding. I will pose questions to them and allow them time to find their own answers and build knowledge that will undoubtedly stick with them for life. I am so excited to begin the project planned with my new friends from around the world and I can't wait to share that excitement with my kids! We will truly become partners in learning!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kinect Reflections After 30 Days

Tomorrow will be our 30th day of school. My first graders are engaged in learning and growing. One of the highlights so far has been the inclusion of Xbox 360 Kinect games in our lessons. The children loved that from the minute they saw it, but, for me, it has been a learning process for the teacher. Using new technology tools in the classroom involves extra time and thought during implementation. The payoffs, however, can be quite rewarding. That has been the case with using Kinect.

Equipped with the TV, Xbox360, Kinect sensor, and a wide selection of games, I began the year with many ideas and expectations for inspiring learning in my students. Two obstacles presented themselves right away. The first was, and always is in the classroom, time. The second was how to manage 21 students and one gaming system. Loving a challenge, I jumped in and began to experiment.

The time issue dissolved as I moved past the need to use the games just because they were there. When any technology tool becomes a natural part of the learning process (no different than using a pencil and paper), it becomes powerful and incorporated where it will do the most good. Rather than planning times for Kinect, I am now considering the wide variety of possibilities (check out the growing list of ideas from Kinect in Education) to enhance our lessons. As with all learning tools, you start with the learning objective, then select the methods, tools, and materials that best achieve the desired results. Used in that way, Xbox 360 Kinect, or any video gaming system can become a part of learning without creating a time problem.

Management is another common issue in the classroom. Engagement has never been a problem as my students are mesmerized by the Kinect games. I could tell right away that if I could direct their enthusiasm, we were sitting on a gold mine of learning possibilities. The difficulty was that only one student could actually "play" the game at a time. The other students were cheering and enjoying the process, but there was not enough active learning participation to suit me. The game Body and Brain Connections helped me solve the problem. That particular game is full of activities that reinforce math concepts I teach. We are working on addition to 10 and learning a variety of ways to make each number. One game is called Perfect Tens (facts for 10 are an important skill to master). The player has to use his or her hands to mark two numbers with a sum of 10 before the timer runs out. We discovered that the Kinect sensor focuses in on a narrow enough area, that while one student was actually controlling the game, all the other students could participate from behind and beside the player. The results were delightful and obviously productive:

I added to the lesson, recording sheets for each child to keep track of his or her score. The children can see their own growth and are motivated to improve their score as in any video game setting. They are learning the facts for 10 more quickly than I could have imagined and they think they are playing!! (The scores will soon become another lesson as we use arrow cards to learn about place value and how to read big numbers.)

Of course, learning the facts for 10 is just one of the many skills we will inspire with our gaming system. The possibilities are endless. Patience is the key. Rather than forcing the games into lessons, I will find the natural applications as they arise. Group participation is the next key as managing the use of the tool becomes no different than passing out paper for spelling practice.

The final advantage and payoff for using Kinect in the classroom is the addition of activity to stimulate both the body and the brain! The first brain rule (Brain Rules by John Medina) is that exercise boosts brain power. Children naturally want to move so why not channel that movement into the learning process! Everyone wins!

After just 30 days of learning with Xbox 360 Kinect, I am convinced that it holds tremendous potential for education. A little time spent working out the bugs and exploring the possibilities will reap great benefits for children!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Making Kinect-tions in the Classroom

I awoke to the most marvelous message on Facebook this morning. Two of my friends, one in Beirut, Lebanon, and the other in Kandy, Sri Lanka, (it is actually incredible that I even have friends in those faraway places) had connected as a result of a project I had invited each of them to join. Friendships are formed so easily and quickly thanks to social networking. The world is an amazingly different place than it was when I was a child, and I am determined to make sure my classroom is an amazingly different place than the classroom of my childhood.

A new addition to the tools in my first grade room this year is an Xbox 360 Kinect gaming system. That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable as I would have argued not too long ago that kids spend way too much time playing video games and that they have no place in education. An open mind, however, and exploring shared links on Twitter, have resulted in a complete "360" degree change in my thinking. I can't wait to put the ideas to the test with my young students.

The first game we will use is called Kinectimals. The delightful virtual pet game will undoubtedly be engaging for children, but it can be so much more than that when incorporated into a classroom. We will use the game as a basis for exploring a wide variety of Colorado State Standards for first grade. The characters in the game include various feline cubs such as lions, tigers, leopards, and panthers. Those cubs will be the basis for first grade research and reasoning as the students use a variety of resources to locate information about each type of cat. As they research, they will explore first grade science standards including learning that offspring have characteristics that are similar to their parents' and that living things have physical characteristics to help them survive. Locating the geographical homes of each cub will be an engaging way to satisfy the social studies standard exploring maps and globes as they represent places. The game itself will present a number of opportunities for the kids to write as they describe the cubs and write about the experience. Deeper connections can be made if we explore the type of cat that would be included in the game for our geographical home and create new elements for the game based on their discoveries. Students can compare and contrast the habitats of the cubs in the game to the habitat of our local wild cats. Mathematics skills are easily reinforced using the game. First graders learn about the whole number system and place value relationships to 100 as well as how to solve addition and subtraction problems. The game offers frequent opportunities for students to play games that result in scores. The scores can be compared and graphed. While watching one student play, the rest of the class can reinforce the counting back strategy of subtraction while they count along with the countdown timer! The "kinect-tions" are endless and I am certain the engagement will be high.

I am just beginning my own learning in this area and I'm so excited to see where this takes the children in the coming year. There are many resources online to explore the possibilities. Check out this one: KinectEDucation. Of course, there are many ways to teach, but connecting the standards with physical movement and highly engaging fun seems to me to be a kinect-tion for made for success!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Most Important Thing...

It is now just one week before school starts for the 2011-2012 school year and there is so much to do. A room to decorate, lessons to prepare, changes to implement, collaborations in which to engage, new technologies to try, and the names and faces of new little people to learn. All of this comes at the end of a summer filled with not only relaxing and spending time with family, but also of learning and preparing for teaching. I find as I go through life that often timing is everything, and once again that has happened in my life. Two summer experiences have overlapped this week that will influence my teaching in the coming days. The first is reading Brain Rules, by John Medina. The second is creating a Facebook group for people who grew up in the same small town where I spent my childhood. As my friends and I are all in our 50's and 60's it is interesting to read the memories that our brains recall from those long ago days in that small community. The first recollections posted were all about school. The best and the worst were on the list. Teachers and classroom experiences recalled were all so strikingly similar. That in itself is not so unusual as we all had the same teachers and spent so many years together in classrooms, but out of all those years only certain memories remain for all of us. The common thread to all the memories is emotion.

Beginning a new school year with a classroom full of small children is such a tremendous responsibility. My reading and active recollection of memories from my own childhood and those of my childhood friends just reinforce the importance of taking time in my preparation to realize that each child who enters my room will be an individual person worthy of the best experiences I can provide. Each individual child is the light of someone's life. They all deserve to be treated as such. No two are alike and no two have exactly the same needs. They all learn in different ways and at different rates, but each will grow to be an adult with memories of school. Will I create memories that will last for decades? Our world is changing at a rapid rate as technology evolves to change how we do things, but the needs of people remain the same.

So as I prepare to do my best in presenting curriculum, assessments, and classroom management, incorporating new 21st century methods and technologies, I will slow down and take time to reflect about each child and remember to keep those young lives at the top of the list in priority. They deserve the best and we will, hopefully, build memories to last a lifetime.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The wrong lesson learned the hard way...

A month ago, my class began the most wonderful lesson. We put special bands on 12 trees in our school arboretum to measure tree growth over the next few years. Children in schools all around the world are participating. The project is part of a world-wide program sponsored by Shout Learning and the Smithsonian Institute, to measure the effects of climate change on tree growth around the world. We had to wait a month from the banding to take the first measurement to send to the Smithsonian. A wonderful employee of the BLM helped us identify the trees and is returning tomorrow to teach the students more about each tree as they use the special tool sent by Shout to take the initial reading. What a marvelous opportunity... or so it seemed.

I returned to the arboretum today to take a few photos and make sure everything was ready to go smoothly for our lesson only to discover that most of the tree bands had been removed. Many were destroyed and found in pieces. Some were missing altogether. The arboretum is a fenced area attached to our playground. It is locked from the school side and has a gate on the other side that leads into the yard of a senior housing complex. One of the residents of the complex was walking this morning when I made my sad discovery. She said they frequently watch older kids in the arboretum breaking branches and destroying projects placed there by scout troops and students. They have called the police, but no has ever been caught.

Several years ago, my class participated in a project to place informational signs on a nature trail in a local park. The night before the kids were to take a field trip to enjoy their finished work, we took the signs to the trail. By morning, one was missing, one was in the river, and many others were smashed and broken. I swore never to try another project like that one again.

I am saddened, angry, and disappointed. My students will be devastated. We will still have our tree lesson, but instead of taking measurements with our dendrometer, we will talk about vandalism and respect. A sad day...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why I Teach...

Today I read the story Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney to my second graders. The beautiful story encourages readers to find a way to make the world more beautiful. Miss Rumphius does so by planting lupines everywhere. As we finished the story, I told my students that I hope each of them will find a way in their own life to make the world more beautiful. "We've already started, Mrs. Arnett," stated one of my children. I asked what he meant. "We are helping the orangutans and helping make less trash in the lunchroom. All of our projects this year..." His comment gave me the shivers and I felt a lump in my throat as another child said, "You planted the seed."
I could have scooped them all up and hugged them at that moment. This is why I teach...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Most Powerful Teaching Site on the Internet

Yesterday was an AH-HA day like no other in my second grade classroom. If you will read through my ramblings about that day, you will discover at the end of my blog, a resource to create many days like this one in any classroom!

We began the day discovering that after only five students returned orders for our DVD called LearningFrom the Past - The Elder Project, we had already raised $175 in donations for the local charity called Christmas for Seniors. The students interviewed their grandparents and great-grandparents over the past months. We made videos of the interviews and added student created digital stories of tales from their grandparents to create the DVD.

A trip to our school arboretum followed. The kids worked along with a visitor from the Bureau of Land Management to identify and band trees for the Shout Learning project. They will take measurements of tree growth to add to a data base from students around the world to study the impact of climate change on trees for the next three years. The local expert was so pleased with the project that she asked to return in four weeks to join us when we take the first measurements. She wants to teach the kids more about each tree.

After lunch we discussed our current class project inspired by Interrobang . After studying the problem of school lunchroom trash all week, the kids finalized their plans for making next week a trash free lunch week for our class. There were a couple of obstacles to overcome for the kids having hot lunch at school and the answer came in an email. Earlier in the day the kids emailed the head of food service for our district with concerns about the use of disposable styrofoam trays and the many prepackaged foods served. She responded quickly and positively. The old plastic trays will be delivered to our school this weekend for use next week. She also told the kids she would work toward making that happen for next year as well! She also gave them an update on an issue of palm oil in Uncrustable PBJ sandwiches they have been serving. She is in contact with Smuckers concerning that ingredient and is working on changing lunch choices in the future to make sure no palm oil is served in our school. The reaction to the email: "We did it!!!"

The discussion of palm oil reminded one of my students that he had something in his backpack to share. He had been reading a magazine when he found an article about orangutans. He shared the picture and map from the article and recapped the content for the other kids.

When we finally got ready to complete some more typical schoolwork (math papers) the kids reminded me that we actually had already done math for the day. "Yeah, remember, Mrs. Arnett? We did lots of math in the arbortetum!" And in fact they had as they measured and marked the trees for the bands.

As the kids spent the rest of the afternoon completing unfinished writing, grammar, and math for the week (we call it finish up Friday), I saw something remarkable happening. They were so uplifted by the successes of their day. They had raised more money on the first day of DVD sales than they had anticipated making in all and could see the potential for that project helping many more local elders than they dreamed possible. They felt so important and connected to the world as they participated in a project for the Smithsonian and realized their work would have a global impact. The quick positive response to their request for help from the food service department in reducing trash in our lunchroom was unbelievable and empowering to them. The reaction from the kids for all of the success of the day was total engagement in their work. They sat straighter, worked harder, celebrated personal success in their assignments, and smiled. I did not have to ask a single student to work harder or get back on task.

We MUST make learning real for our students. All of the text book reading and testing in the world cannot inspire the motivation in students that a real project about a real life issue can. With the online connections available to our students right in our classrooms there is no reason not to involve them and empower them in the world. My ah-ha was how doing so engages and builds confidence and motivation. We ended our day singing along with a song written by our friend, John Farrell. It is called "It's the Little Things" and sums up perfectly the projects we have been doing in class.

I have had a year filled with personal and professional successes. The result of that for me has been an increase in my motivation and effort to improve my teaching. I am engaged and constantly learning to better myself. My students are equally motivated by meaningful successes. It is my job to present them with opportunities.

I titled this blog "The Most Powerful Teaching Site on the Internet" because I have discovered a wonderful site that will help me continue involving my students in real learning. Any teacher can go to the site to find ideas for project and problem based learning. Making changes in the way we teach is not easy, but this site will help any teacher at any grade level get things moving in the right direction. The site? Interrobang . It is filled with opportunities and possibilities. Check it out and engage your kids!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Assessing the Gingerbread Village....

The Gingerbread Village stands complete in my classroom. The children did it their way, working together and totally engaged for about 45 minutes a day throughout the week. The next step is time to simply "play" (although they would tell you that is what they did all week). Before I turn them loose to enjoy their creation for the sake of simple play, however, I want to assess their learning to see if the time spent on the project was worthwhile.

As I reflected on their dialogue during the assessment I had only one thought for the next time I do this activity. Rather than limiting my students to boxes, construction paper, and a city on the floor, I hope that the next time I am able to allow them to create the town in the way they choose. Perhaps it will be a virtual town on the computer that they can all access and interact with. Who knows? I'm learning new things along with my students everyday.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lessons From the Gingerbread Man...

For the past two weeks I have been encouraging my students to bring empty half gallon milk cartons to school for a project that I have always done during our fairy tale unit. They have not brought in nearly enough cartons for our project. In fact, they have brought in only four or five total. The 15 or so that I had saved made enough for us to begin the project last week, but we are faced with the inability to complete it at all if they do not show up with quite a few on Monday. The fact that I am still in the process of changing my teaching is probably the reason the solution to this problem was slow in coming, but today while reading blog posts from Twitter, I had another ah-ha moment!

The project I am using comes from a wonderful book of what were at one time innovative ways to teach math. It is spelled out in specific steps and even has "The Rules of the Kingdom". Guess who the ruler is? Why me, of course! I don't know how many times I will have to learn this lesson before it becomes instinctive, but I don't have to be the ruler and I don't have to set the rules for my students to learn something worthwhile!

Our project is based on the story of The Gingerbread Man. With a simple change to the ending of the story, he escapes from the fox and finds himself on the other side of the river where he meets other Gingerbread people who are building a village in the forest. The project is a set of activities that incorporate math skills and social studies. Everything is based on half gallon cartons so that the pieces of the village fit together as planned. Well.... we can learn a great deal by venturing away from the prescribed lesson and turning the kingdom over to the Gingerbread people rather than the "king"!

The Gingerbread families have been created. Each family has an elaborately designed milk carton home. Now all they need is floor space and an opportunity to work together to create a village that will meet their needs. They don't need me to tell them what to do or how to do it. I only need to pose a question that will guide their learning. "How can the Gingerbread people build a village that will meet their basic needs and provide a safe environment in which to live?" It occurs to me that they will learn so much more by working together and figuring that out as a class. I plan to show up at school with a variety of boxes and materials for them to use and to see where our project goes when led by the students rather than a book. Will it involve math? Maybe. Will it involve social studies? Definitely! Will the kids be engaged and learning? Certainly!

I can't wait to see what happens!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lessons From Palm Oil

My second grade students watched a live broadcast from Borneo via TakingItGlobal earlier this week. They learned about the destruction of the rainforest and the orangutan habitat for the production of palm oil. A reflective discussion following the event generated a list of ideas for how seven and eight year old children can help with the problem. "We can speak for the trees!" suggested one student. They went on to suggest writing letters to the companies that are responsible, writing a blog about the issue, and starting a campaign against the use of palm oil. The kids were not, however, exactly sure what products contained palm oil. In an effort to transfer the responsibility for gathering information from myself to my students, I suggested that they go home that night and begin searching labels to find out. A wonderful lesson for children! But... the lesson had a twist I had not foreseen...

The next morning the children arrived ready for a new day. One of the first little girls through the door enthusiastically exclaimed that she had found a product containing palm oil! As she announced her finding, sugar wafer cookies, my eyes traveled quickly to a Walmart bag sitting on the table. With a sinking heart, I opened the bag which contained brownies I had purchased for a reward I owed the kids. They squealed with delight as I lifted them from the bag, only to dissolve in dismay as I turned them over and read from the ingredient label: palm oil! A tiny voice rose from the class asking the question they were all thinking, "Do we still get to eat them?" There was a collective sigh of relief as I said, "Of course you can, but I just learned a huge lesson from you! Next time I will look at the label before I buy things! Even better, perhaps baking from scratch rather than buying ready made would be best!" I don't think a single child in my class will ever forget the lesson I learned that day.

As we lined up to go home, I reminded them that over the weekend they should look for more products that contain palm oil to report back to the class. My favorite question of the day was, "Would it be cheating to look on the internet?"

We are learning together, keeping it real, and making a difference!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Right in our backyards....

One of the changes I've tried in my teaching this year is sharing the stage. Stepping back and allowing my students to learn from experts, family, and even each other has reaped tremendous rewards. The level of engagement and achievement could not be higher! As with anything new, it seems to get easier as the months go by. Our next project has uncovered treasure right in our backyard! The last Shout event, Study the Land, provided ideas for learning about the effects of climate change on the trees. I also came across a lesson plan from the Smithsonian that I was given last summer in Washington, D.C. about plant fossils found in nearby Wyoming. It contains photos of leaf fossils and a graph of the climate change that took place during the time in which they were formed. The Epals website had a link to information about a coal mine and rain forest fossils. Things began to connect and I made a few calls. It turns out that the husband of our physical education teacher is an environmentalist at the coal mine that we can see from our school playground. A call to him confirmed that there have been plant fossils found right here where we live. Some are large fern fossils, too large for him to bring to school, but he is going to gather what he can and pay us a visit. I can't think of a more engaging way for the kids to learn that there used to be a rain forest right where we live! Even better, he is the uncle of one of my students. Equally important, all the kids are aware that our pine forests are dying. You can't drive into the mountains in Colorado without noticing vast areas of reddish orange pine trees. Pine beetles are killing them. We are inviting someone from the National Forest Service to pay us a visit as well, to help us understand what is happening. Apparently the pine beetle problem is also related to global climate change. A lesson from the rain forest of the past, a lesson from the pine forests of the present, and questions about the future of forests here where we live will undoubtedly be interesting and meaningful to my second graders. I won't be teaching any of those lessons. I will facilitate the learning by inviting those who know much more than I. We will all learn together. The focus will be on learning, not on my teaching. The lessons will not be found in a text book or teacher's manual, but I have no doubt that the learning will be powerful and the reflections of the students will last a lifetime.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Full circle...

It was in August of 2009. I had just attended blog and wiki training for the technology team in my district. I had heard of blogs, not of wikis, and had never tried either one. It was all foreign to me and I had no sense of how it would benefit my teaching. I'm sitting here today, reflecting on how that one simple meeting changed my teaching in dramatic ways. In the 19 months that have passed since the meeting, I have created this blog for myself, one for my class , one for individual student use , and a new one for our school . I have created three wikis. One is for my class and two are collaborative wikis for pen pals around the world ( and ) . Along with my dear friend and pen pal partner, Rawya Shatila of Beirut, Lebanon, I became one of the 2010 Epal Ambassadors, won the 2010 Microsoft US Innovative Education Forum, and traveled to Capetown, South Africa to represent my country at the Microsoft Worldwide Innovative Education Forum. The learning that has taken place in my professional life since has been like an explosion. My classroom is not, and never will be the same again. All because of a simple technology training session that inspired me to investigate and explore new communication and collaboration possibilities.

This morning I read a wonderful blog by WhatEdSaid called Change isn't easy.... As I read the simple explanation of what we all face in the transformation taking place in education, I couldn't help but look back 19 months to myself before I became aware of what was happening around me. I, in August of 2009, had no idea that I even needed to make changes in my teaching. There are many, many teachers who are still at that place in their profession. Teaching can be an isolated occupation, spent day after day in a classroom with students. There is often little opportunity for contact with other teachers in the building, let alone a chance to build relationships with teachers in other places. Without social networking and high quality staff development no change is even likely to take place! We can't make changes we don't know about and aren't encouraged to make! Last night I found a charming example on Twitter. For 18 years I have been teaching first and second graders in snowy Craig, Colorado. Although I love snow, the thought of months getting a classroom of small children ready for recess in the snow, still makes me shudder. If you have never experience that, just watch this video posted by Mary Ellen Lynch: Dressing in Snow Clothes. The amazing part of the video for me was that for 18 years I have dealt with small children asking me to pull the cuffs of their jackets over the ends of their gloves after they dress. I have continued to tell them that if I took time to pull every cuff over every glove in the class, we would miss recess entirely. It took Twitter, and a very creative small person to show me that there is, indeed, a better way to do it!

Although the initial training that led me on a journey of change in my classroom took place in professional development provided by my district, most of my learning has taken place through interactions outside of work. There is never enough time or money for all the staff development teachers need. Self-directed learning and exploration are key to professional development. Teachers need to take advantage of the multitude of professional learning communities available on the internet. A great book to read is Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning by Marc Prensky.

I called this post "Full Circle...." for a reason. On Thursday, I will be making a presentation to the NW Colorado BOCES. One of the people I will be talking to is the very person who led the training I attended in August of 2009. I can't wait to share with her the result of her efforts that day. It will be an opportunity for me to inspire at least one of the people in that group to embark on the journey I have taken since. Change isn't easy, but the first step has to be awareness that change is taking place.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hanging out with digital natives...

When my seven year old granddaughter was two, I used to keep a supply of Dum Dum suckers in my purse. When she was overly tired, hungry, or fussy and we were out of the house doing those inevitable things that didn't allow her needed nap or meal, a tiny sucker would keep her content until we could take her home and meet her needs. Well, in just five years, the need for a sucker in my purse has been eliminated. Today I found myself in a vehicle with my grandson, who was at the moment a very fussy two year old. He and I were waiting while his mother and sister ran a quick errand. Luckily, his sister had left behind her ipod touch. Guess what I found waiting for him there? A Dum Dum sucker app!!! His tears ended instantly when I handed him the ipod and he began tapping the tiny sucker on the screen while smiling from ear to ear. As he tapped, the sucker disappeared before our eyes, and when only the stick was left, he knowingly gave the ipod a shake causing a new sucker to appear so he could begin the process all over again. He was totally engaged in "devouring" suckers until his mother returned a few minutes later. The best part was, no sugar entered his mouth! There is truly an app for everything!!!

My three grandchildren, ages 11, 7, and 2, are true digital natives. While at their house last night, my oldest granddaughter, who was in her room, called urgently for her little sister, who was busy reading to me. (A book, by the way. Yes, they still love to read real books!) Reese, ran to see what Kenzie wanted. She was gone for quite awhile and I could hear voices coming from their room. When she returned, I asked her what they were doing. Very matter of factly, as she snuggled up beside me to return to the book she had been reading, she informed me that they had been skyping on Kenzie's netbook with their cousin... in Cambodia. This morning, Kain was sitting beside Reese at the kitchen table where his sister was busy playing Moshi Monsters on my laptop. Two year old Kain kept reaching over and tapping the screen. As I watched him, I realized he was trying to interact with the game! You see his two older sisters both have ipod touches, his dad has an ipad, and his mom an iphone! He didn't understand why my simple MacBook Pro didn't respond to his touch!

What a different world children are growing up in today! Technology is a routine part of their lives. I am old enough, of course, to remember when all of the miraculous gadgets did not exist and I don't think I will ever stop being amazed by what we can do with technology today. What is next? What will be in store for the children of my grandchildren? Stay tuned... it's bound to be incredible!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How will they learn... not how will I teach...

One of the best parts of teaching is the learning. The learning by the students, of course, but also the learning by the teacher. There are always tales of teachers who have file cabinets full of lesson plans organized by week, that they pull out year after year, believing that what worked yesterday will work today as well. I don't think I actually know any of those teachers, at least I hope not! That would never work for me, and that is perhaps why I loop. Moving back and forth between first and second grade every other year keeps my mind fresh and forces me to think about my teaching. With two years between lessons, there are many changes to consider. Who are the children sitting in front of me now? What are their interests? Where are they in their learning? What do they need next to move on? What new strategies and teaching ideas have I acquired? The last question is so important. Teachers must never allow themselves to become stale. The world around us is changing constantly and those changes are obvious in our students. To ignore that and pull out a 20 year old lesson plan would serve to frustrate both the students and the teacher. Even more importantly, it would probably not result in the learning that the teacher had envisioned. Although I began my teaching career late in life (at 40), I have now been teaching long enough to have memories of "the way we used to teach". I am not unlike the students, however, in my need to keep learning fresh and relevant. I crave the creative challenge of exploring new things and seeing where they lead.

In the past two weeks, I reached a new understanding of a thought I read recently. We need to focus not so much on the teaching, as on the learning. The internet is full of lesson plan sites. Think of a topic and you can find an almost unlimited number of ways to teach it. How do you go about selecting the perfect lesson plan to add, perhaps, to your file cabinet of lessons for the first week of January? (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) What if instead of looking for a way to teach, you spent time thinking of ways a child would learn? It took me some time to sort out the difference and really understand that concept. It became pretty clear in the last two weeks as I approached something I have taught many times from a new direction.

Teaching students to become effective writers can be challenging. There are many programs available to guide teachers through the process and our district has a program as well. The program has excellent skills, goals, samples, and rubrics to assist a teacher in developing writing skills in students. it certainly is a way to teach writing. But something is missing for me in following a commercial program day after day. I shouldn't use what we call the "b" word in class, but simply teaching the same way day after day has a tendency to become "boring" for both the students and the teacher. I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to approach the topics to keep my teaching alive as well as the students awake. It was in that spirit that I realized the difference between thinking of "how they will learn" rather than "how I will teach". We had been working on descriptive writing and the kids had reached a plateau. I wanted them to move on and continue to develop more skillful writing. In the past I have used poetry to inspire more creative description, so I decided to do that again. Now there are many ways to approach poetry and I have tried a variety of things in the past. This time, however, I tried something new. I recently acquired a set of wireless mice and several hubs for connection to a PC. Using a free Microsoft download called Mouse Mischief and PowerPoint 2007, I created a lesson to teach my second graders about poetic devices. The writing devices were not new. I taught them about alliteration, simile, personification, and onomatopoeia as I have often done in the past. The difference was in the approach. I have never taught all of those at one time before. That is quite a lot for a seven or eight year old to grasp in one sitting. Especially when a teacher is lecturing and explaining while a child is expected to listen and learn. But... when I put them into a power point lesson that allowed the students to interact by moving and clicking their own personal mouse from their seat, they were suddenly playing a game, not hearing a lesson. They were engaged, noisy, and actively involved in learning. It took exactly one lesson for mastery of the poetic concepts. After we put the mice away, I covered a table with photographs I had taken in my backyard of winter animals and snow covered plants. The kids selected pictures and put their new learning to work in a magnificent way as they wrote poems filled with our new poetic devices. There was not a single child off task or unsuccessful. In fact, it was one of my struggling writers who became the star of our poetry writing. We uncovered her creative side as she easily saw similes and connections to apply personification.

The magic of the lesson was the "game" approach. In 2011 much of the play our students engage in involves technology. That is reality. Ask them what they like to play. Most will say video games. If we want them to learn, we need to engage them in ways that captivate their attention. The student that had the most striking success for me was the one who would have shut down if asked to watch and listen. She would never have gained the understanding of the lesson without the active involvement that putting the mouse in her hand created. It invited her to listen and participate and discover a success that she will not soon forget. You can lead a kid to a lesson but you can't make them listen... but just try to get them to keep their mouse still for a second!!! It wasn't the lesson I was teaching that made the difference, it was approaching it in a way that kids learn.

Here are some of the poems my students created after one lesson: