Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can a Student Science Symposium be Techie? by Laura

Our annual science symposium was held last Friday afternoon.  Students in 6th grade worked in teams to program a Lego robot for a mission and also research and plan an innovation around the theme of robots of the future.  In 7th and 8th grade, students do an independent research project  based on our science theme of the year.  They begin in November with research questions and work to complete the research and the writing in phases right up until the May event.

Technology plays a role in every aspect of the process.  I wrote a Science Symposium Handbook several years ago to guide the students through the process and particularly the genre of science research writing.  This year I published it both in hard copy and on Issuu: Science Symposium Handbook 2010-2011.  Naturally students do background research and their writing on laptops.  Some students used Vernier Probeware for their research this year.This year I would like to publish student papers online as well. And of course they do their data analysis on their laptops.

I used Google docs for some aspects of editing. One winter's day, when school was canceled for a snow day, students posted their Materials & Methods section on a common Google doc.  I sat on my couch and read and edited each one, leaving comments for each student.  They had a chance to benefit by reading each others this way too.  I always have students peer edit sections of the paper before they submit to me, and this was sometimes done through Google docs.

Finally, students reflect about the process by filling out a Google form.  The responses fill in a spreadsheet that makes it easy for me to see them all in one place.  Forms have become my favorite Google app.They have reduced the amount of paper in my life even more than Google docs have.    I love being able to analyze responses both student-by-student and question-by-question.

I have grown very thoughtful, though, about where technology is not seen.  It is not seen in the afternoon presentations and the final paper itself.  I teach at a technologically innovative school, and I can see how the event looks the same as such events have for decades.I have hesitated to have students talk from presentation on their laptops because the screens are small and not as conducive to face-to-face conversation as traditional posters are.  My fantasy would be to have a projector for every student and use the boards as the "screen" but that is too expensive and running power to fifty projectors at once would not be possible.

The professional scientists who have attended the event over the year have always found it to mimic their own events.  This may not be valued by my students or the majority of their parents and the other adults in our school community.  So, I will continue to explore and mull over how science symposia in middle school should fit into the 21st century.  As always, I would love to have ideas from readers.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Student Led Conferences By Shirley

Most schools have parent teacher conferences throughout the school year and most teachers and parents seem quite happy with the outcome. What is wrong with this event? Only that the most important person, the student is missing during these dialogues. Why would we not include the students? How can we ask students to be creative, collaborative, independent learners if they are not present for this important event? A few schools have changed to student led conferences and I would love to know how teachers feel about this process compared to the outdated parent teacher meetings.

For many years I invited my students to be present during parent teacher conferences to listen and participate during our discussions about their progress, strengths and weaknesses.  It was important to me that their voices were heard and I felt it was important, especially for 5th and 6th graders to know what was being said about them, both positive and negative, and usually behind closed doors.  How can goals for the year be set without student participation? For the students who did not or could not attend a conference, I would have a quick update meeting with them the following day and go over the main points of our conversation. This way everyone was on the same page. Not perfect but at least inclusive.

I was therefore delighted when a few years ago Poughkeepsie Day School decided to implement a student led parent conference day for all students in middle school.  Lots of research went into this project and we came up with a preparation plan for this new event. The process has evolved over the years and we have tweaked our reflection process several times. Preparation begins a few weeks before the conference date and takes place in advisory groups. Students are asked to really look at themselves as learners not just in each subject area but as overall learners and reflect on their progress, achievements and challenges throughout the year. Each student is given one half hour to present to parents and the adviser, who are asked not to interrupt until the student is finished (probably the most difficult part of the process).  Students prepare and handle this event in many different ways, yet It always amazes me that even the quietest and shyest child somehow feels comfortable enough to sit for one half hour to talk about himself/herself as a learner in a positive way.

Our conference day was yesterday and I felt elated as students came in happily with their parents, well prepared and ready to begin to present themselves. Having used a variety of web 2.0 tools this year in class, most students chose to use their laptops to share from…we saw many Google docs, power points, blog posts and wiki pages.  Not one student needed help or guidance and the half hour was barely enough time to complete each presentation. I heard honest, passionate students reflecting about themselves and setting realistic and challenging goals for the rest of the year. I haven’t had feedback from the parents yet, but plan to send emails this week to find out their responses.. 

 Some interesting thoughts and resources about student led conferences….

 Some observation I have made….
·      Parents really listen
·      Kids stay on agenda items and do not veer off the topic
·      It empowers the students to take charge of their own learning
·      Students are very honest about their work, learning styles, homework and strengths and weaknesses
·      They set realistic goals for themselves
·      Students feel good that they have accomplished something when finished

"We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." John Dewey.

I would love to hear from other teachers and students about what they think the ideal conference would be like…please leave a comment.