Thursday, September 1, 2011

Decisions to shirley

Vacation is over and another new and exciting school year is about to begin. For me this has meant reflecting, rethinking, planning and organizing for the coming year.  My classroom consistently changed this past year as I introduced daily use of laptops, went almost paperless, encouraged my students to reach out globally and handed much more planning, creating and teaching over to the students themselves. I have been thinking carefully about the pros and cons of these changes so I can plan for a productive and stimulating year of Global Medieval Studies for all of my 6th grade students.

Most of my 6th graders owned their own laptops last year and those who did not had access to a laptop cart. This was the first year of our school using a Google platform so everyone had access to a Google Email and many Google Apps. It was the year to try some new applications and web 2.0 tools.

The year began by spending time setting up iGoogle for each student with Email, Calendars, Sites and Google Docs. The students enjoyed being able to chose what to have on their pages and arrange their different choices. Email worked well for whole class or individual student communication and for sharing last minute changes in schedules, homework questions etc.  It tended however to be a one to one communication tool and rather clumsy for collaboration between groups of students. Google Docs on the other hand worked very well for everyone and students loved having all their writing in one place either to share with their group members or me.  It was so simple to edit, comment etc using Docs and quite fun when students would see me writing a comment while they were working at home. They could also share their work with other students and work collaboratively with each other.  After over thirty years of teaching using paper journals I made the switch and student journal writing was also created on Google Docs. Many of my students stated that Google Docs was the most favorite and useful tool they used last year. This coming year I want to expand and include Google Reader for each student, and take the next step in working towards students building their own personal learning networks.

Having all this great writing led me to create a class blog so students could publish their work for a global audience to read and comment. Instead of printing copies and sharing within our own community students decided to publish most of their work on the 6th grade blog. We used Edublogs and participated in the Edublogs challenge.  What a wonderful learning experience for all of us as we created guidelines, pages, categories, added widgets, pictures, videos and slide shows. We experimented with Vimeo, Animoto Voicethread and Vokis to share our thoughts, information and ideas in a variety of ways. Students were delighted when others commented on their work. We had great communication with Turkish university students learning English through our blog and met some new friends from The School at Columbia. Our cluster map grew rapidly as we read and commented on students’ work from around the world and they replied to us. I can’t wait to begin again with a new group of students, try some more new ideas and help guide them towards being competent bloggers.

Our studies last year focused on Ancient Greece and some of the students asked if they could share their knowledge and projects with other students globally, so we decided to create a class wiki. Students worked collaboratively on different units of study to plan, create and share their knowledge, not just with their classmates but also with anyone globally who was interested in their topics.  Groups could create links to each other’s pages, give advice on each group’s units and work on editing together. A wiki is a wonderful social media tool for real collaboration between students and gives a great sense of independence and responsibility. I will certainly continue using wikis next year to create a variety of projects.

Skype was a tool we used often with several schools around the US and also as far afield as Scotland. Students began to see themselves as ambassadors of their school, their class and their learning.  They learned a lot about the difference between rural and urban schools and about how students love sharing many things about themselves. Communication skills became very important and it was essential to prepare before our online sessions. We also used Skype for students who were out sick or on vacation. They could continue to participate in discussions, group projects, partner work and individual writing,
Skyping with Bill Boyd in Scotalnd

Edmodo was a both successful and disappointing social media tool. Many students loved the look and feel of it, as is it similar to face book in its format.  We used it on snow days when school was closed and we wanted to continue our learning together. We decided on a time for each class to meet and I set up group pages. The format was not great to use with so many people at a time and I think I have to rethink if this is the best platform to use. If I can work out the kinks, perhaps the second time around will be smoother.   

So what did I learn through this whole process??

1.     Technology empowers students (all students at different times, using different tools that they can choose)
2.     Students learn best by taking on more of their own learning (decision making, planning, creating and sharing)
3.     Listen to your students…they know themselves pretty well in many areas of their learning
4.     You do not have to be an expert to be successful with technology, just a willingness to try some new things
5.     Learning alongside your students is a great experience
6.     Real life learning gives students the desire to excel in many areas
7.     Collaboration helps all students become more independent and responsible learners
8.     Technology does not take more time, it is just a different style of teaching

I certainly changed my style of teaching by trying out these new ideas and I think it was well worth it. I learned a lot about my students and myself. I saw engaged, enthusiastic and empowered learners. When I look back at the standard of writing and the passion to succeed I saw in my students last year, I am convinced that last year’s changes were positive, rewarding and the way I want to continue my teaching.