Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Crafting Questions

I want to reflect on an "upgrade" I am working on with 4th grade right now. There are a few things that stand out to me as important. We say "it's not about the tools" all the time, but I find that most people still equate "21st century learning" with use of electronic devices. I think this example is a good demonstration of "not about tools". The other thing that amazes me and that I want to verbalize, is the power of the pedagogy of students asking good questions.

4th grade Social Studies-
Collaboration Between Classroom Teacher and "Learning Specialist"
The 4th grade teacher and I, as a result of planning together, decided to join the Virtual USA project to add interest & excitement to the social studies curriculum, while making connections between our students' study of Florida and other 4th graders' studies about their states or regions. As part of this process, we decided to split the class into two groups to facilitate learning about Florida's economy and government. Although I don't normally work with small groups of students in this way, I was excited to be with the government group.

We began with KWL, and the students knew very little about state government. In fact, all they knew was that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida and Rick Scott is the governor. I decided to begin with the textbook. I gave out poster board for taking notes, and we began to read and discuss.

Side note: The other group, working with the classroom teacher to learn about Florida's economy, began using the computers for research right away. My group asked several times if they could "start looking for things on the computer." I think it was surprising to them, since I am usually the "tech teacher," that I told them I thought they needed to develop some background knowledge in order to be able to use the computers in a meaningful way.

As we read and talked about the three branches of government (including, of course, watching the classic Schoolhouse Rock video about how a bill becomes a law) I saw interest in the topic beginning to take shape.

Connecting with Experts
I suggested that we might learn more by talking with someone who works in state government. The students worked together to write a post on their class blog requesting help in finding an expert to Skype with us.

I love what happened next because, to me, this illustrates what happens when you empower the kids instead of the teacher doing all the work. I received an email from one of the 4th graders telling me that her grandmother knew former state representative, Dick Kravitz and would speak to him. This fabulous 4th grader basically set the whole thing up herself (through her grandmother.) All I had to do was finalize a date and time.

After we scheduled the date and time, I received this email from the student who made the connection:
I can't wait!!!!! Is he going to skype or come in because either way is awesome! We keep emailing each other but haven't talked in person since this whole dick Kravitz thing started!
When are we going to start preparing? BTW can't wait till December 1st!
I share this because I feel it serves as evidence that we should, as much as possible, have students do the "work," whatever that may be. I know that in the past, I might have done the connecting and scheduling myself, just telling the students about the "special guest." I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I believe and have experienced that the more the students are involved, in an age-appropriate way, the more ownership they feel. They discover that they are capable of making things happen, and they learn to use the tools and skills to make meaningful connections.

Crafting Questions
We began working to prepare for Mr. Kravitz's visit. One of the most important components of preparing was the process of collaboratively writing questions. We started by asking each student to write questions for homework. We then entered all of the students' questions into a Google doc, and that's when the great work really got started.

One student showed us the website he used to learn about Dick Kravitz before writing his questions. This led to a discussion about the importance of "doing your homework" and learning about the person you are planning to interview so that you can ask intelligent questions that draw forth the person's ideas/experiences.
We also talked about:
•open-ended vs. closed ended question
•avoiding asking factual questions- we can find those answers ourselves by researching

We started deleting, combining and reworking questions to make them more open-ended. We used background information we had learned about our speaker to craft excellent questions. For example, the question "Why did you want to be a representative?" became "You majored in education in college and have a master's degree in sports administration. What made you decide to go into politics? Why did you choose to run for House of Representatives?"
Finally, we decided on a logical order for asking the questions and decided which student would ask each question.

I am amazed by how much the students have learned from this process- about government and about the art of interviewing someone. The interview took place yesterday, December 1st, and I hope to write more about that in another post. However, I believe that even if we never had a chance to ask the questions at all, the process of preparation was, in itself, a tremendous learning experience.

Important factors that contributed to success:
Time- We gave the process of working with the questions plenty of time, and we needed it. Often, with so much to "cover" I feel we rush through things instead of giving them the time they deserve. When preparing for a Skype call with students, we always take time to prepare and write questions, but never before have I spent such focused time working on the questions. I have learned a ton- not just about teaching this way, but also about state government!
Collaboration- This was a good synchronicity from every angle- between teacher and teacher, teachers and students and students with each other. Most of the credit goes to a classroom teacher who has worked on building a community where students know how to listen to one another and treat all ideas with respect. The teacher(s) acted as guides, but this was the students' project, and it was evident by their engagement in each stage of preparation.
Building background knowledge- If we had jumped right in by scheduling an interview with someone in state government, I believe that it would have been virtually meaningless to students with so little background knowledge. Because we used basic information in the textbook to learn about the structure of government and the Internet to find out more about Dick Kravitz, the students were able to ask deep, intelligent questions and to understand the answers.

For a student point-of-view, read Jamie's words here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Edublog Award Nominations

Although I read a lot of blogs, I've never attempted to post an Edublog Award nomination before. I feel generally incapable of bestowing the title of "best"....at least for the most part. I'm not sure if that's just a personality thing or if I don't pay enough attention to what I'm reading, but what has moved me to do this in 2011 is a few of the student bloggers I am working with in 5th grade. Out of the class of 15 are 3 who are really putting extra effort into their blogs. I would really like to nominate each of them for "best student blog" because I think that they all deserve recognition. But "best" isn't about recognizing all the good ones, is it? So, I have thought long and hard, and I have decided which student blog is getting my nomination. And while I'm at it, I thought I'd try to sift through the other excellent blogs I read to give a nod to some that really speak to me.

  • Best individual blog- Tech Transformation Maggie Hos-McGrane tackles many of the deeper issues surrounding edtech that I grapple with, and she does it in a style that is concise, to the point and always makes me think.
  • Best individual tweeter- @courosa He shares a lot of good stuff. He seems to make a genuine effort to really connect with a wide range of people. He's helpful and has a good sense of humor. Those are the things I look for in a "best" tweeter.
  • Best student blog- Sarah S Despite having several students who I feel have poured heart and soul into their blogs this year, I had to choose just one to nominate. I chose Sarah S. because her writing is excellent, she covers a wide range of topics, and she illustrates almost every post, creating many of the images herself. Sarah is a very quiet girl, and I have enjoyed getting to know her better through reading her blog. We blog in class twice a week, but Sarah puts in extra effort, working on her blog at home to make it shine, both in written content as well as other items of interest, such as polls, Wordles and widgets. I am proud to nominate this blog for an Edublog award, and I hope to bring attention and visitors to this high-quality example of a student blog.
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog- Langwitches What I appreciate about this blog, and what I think distinguishes it from other ed tech/resource sharing blogs is that blogger, Silvia Tolisano, doesn't just share a resource- she documents each and every step she takes in using tech resources with students, including step-by-step how-to's and wonderful photographs. Not only have I learned a ton from reading this blog, I often use it as a working resource, going back to search and re-read, as I'm planning lessons or trying to implement ideas of my own.
  • Best teacher blog- Elementary My Dear, Or Far From It I like this blog because it's real. I appreciate the honest self-reflection from first grade teacher, Jen Orr, who tells it like she experiences it. This year she is writing a series of posts about her students, in an effort to spend time thinking about what makes each student unique and special. That's the kind of teacher she is.
  • Best free web tool Google Apps for Education We couldn't do many of the things we do at our school if not for Google Apps. Just having student emails allows us to access many other web tools.