Monday, 18 June 2012

How much connection is too much?

I have been struggling with the question of is there a limit to how much technology we should have in our classroom.  Kids and adults alike live connected to the world through computers, mobile devices and gaming consoles.  Most of us rely on the instant connectivity,  except that many elementary students must disconnect when they get to school.  Teenagers and adults often struggle to find a balance between being connected, and being present in the real world.  In a recent discussion, some colleagues shared some funny stories about that need to get bars of connection and participate in the online world.  Even at our Father’s day dinner, all 5 adults, including my Dad who is new to the smartphone addiction, had out phones on the table. It was hard for each of us to forsake all else and devote all our attention to each other, even though there was nothing important enough to actually take me away from a wonderful meal with my family.  
So are we feeding this unfortunate struggle between being connected to the world and connected with those around us in the classroom?  I often hear teachers say that they avoid “screen time” in their teaching and learning practice because kids get so much as it is.  While I understand that, I still feel unsettled by the fact that we take away such a natural tool from our students.  Fifty years ago, the world today would have been impossible to imagine.  I can’t even fathom what the technological realities will be in 20 years.  Who am I to remove such an important aspect of my students’ life, one that I can’t even part with for more than an hour?  Students, even in a very young age, rely on and effectively utilize technology.  Recently, as a teacher working in my second language, with my second language student, were working with the names of less common animals.  I have no shame in admitting that I don’t know the French word for wolverine, and so “we searched it up” online.  What a disadvantage we all would have been at, teacher included, if we couldn’t have associated the word “ un carcajou” with the uncommon image of a wolverine.  Through our connection, we all learned something that day.  
I don’t know how to balance the old world practice of pen and paper tasks with the more technology focused activities in my class.  In my life, and as an individual in my classroom, I model that connection that is an extra appendage through my mobile device.  I hear what some colleagues say about too much screen time, especially for the little guys.  But the idea of removing the students from the context in which they learn everyday makes me too uncomfortable. I can’t in good conscience limit my students’ connectivity and remove those connections that engrain their learning.  As with everything, blocking students from the world teaches them very little.  I think we need to open up the connections, but teach and model the best ways and times to access those connections.  

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Digital citizenship

Digital citizenship is such an important concept in our world today.  Our Social Studies curriculum, at least in Alberta, focuses on citizenship, from kindergarten to grade 12, centers around citizenship and identity.  Here a the program foundation graphic from Alberta Education.  

And yet, the most emergent and arguably most important aspect of our 21st century citizenship, who we are and how we act in the digital world, is almost absent from our curriculum.  
As a member of Generation Y, I have experienced a change in my own view of my digital responsibility.  I finished high school in the late 1990s and entered university in the early 2000s.  The internet for me was a place where I could communicate with friends on ICQ (remember that!) and MSN, illegally download as much music as I wanted, and where I could look for information I needed for school, but then had to back up with a reference from an actual book because the internet was not an appropriate place to find information.  Flash forward just 10 years, and I am a discerning internet consumer and producer.  I search and use information on the internet every hour of the day, for my studies, in my classroom, and to settle debates with friends, I add content to the web with Facebook, Twitter and a blog, and I now pay for media content that I download.   My digital citizenship has developed over the years based on my own sense of morality ( not to be a thief), professional learning and conversations and cautionary digital (fairy) tales I have heard about digital mishaps that have taught me to be careful online.  We as educators have a responsibility to teach students how to be good digital citizens.  
Teachers, schools, divisions and governments must put the time and effort into fostering digital citizenship among out iGeneration students.   So how do we do it?  At the grassroots level in our classroom, we have to model it always.  It is never too early to cite your sources.  My grade ones and twos know that if they copy an image or video into their work, they also must copy the link to the image.  We use “talk-aloud” strategies on Math and Literacy, we also need to model our thought processes as we explore websites or programs with students.  A teacher must set the expectation for her students as to what is appropriate online behavior.   
A classmate, Janelle, has a blog about Digital Citizenship at the Elementary level  . 
Here are some of the resources for teaching digital citizenship that she suggests.  

Common Sense Media

Media Smarts

All of these sites provide great resources for students, teachers, and parents.  As educators in the 21st century, it is essential to teach kids how to be responsible online, and also above all else, how to be smart and protect themselves.  

Social Media in my classroom?

I have been thinking about social networking in the classroom.  I have watched my students become engrossed in an online environment called Animal Jam, from National Geographic.  Essentially the site is an online environment where a child signs on, and interacts with others as animals, moving though various habitats and playing challenges to gain point.  The animal avatars can connect with others they know, or with whoever is in the environment. I have observed their enthusiasm, engagement and passion for this game, and I have seen the readiness of my students to be part of virtual learning communities.  Imagine if there was a kid (ages 5-10) friendly environment where teachers could input content, and student could, like in a flipped classroom model, interact and learn the content with their peers, on their own time!  
In the past week I have come across two other articles that have solidified my thoughts on the need for social networking in the division one classroom.  I was reading a study done by the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian not for profit organization which focuses on providing resources to children, teachers and parents about media, and media literacy.  In the study, a Canadian kindergarten teach was discussing how her students blog on a regular basis.  This comment surprised me, as there are many primary level blogs, but they are written by the teacher.  It really got me thinking about the literacy and media learning that would be taking place.  You can read the study here.    Young Canadians in a Wired World- Teachers' Perspectives
I also read an article in the paper about how successful young people and companies are moving away from email, which I found shocking, and moving towards communicating through social media and instant messaging.Calgary Herald article I clearly am the generation of email dependents as I can’t see a corporate world without it, and this article really surprised me.  But it is often said that many of the jobs our students will be doing don’t even exist yet, and our job as educators is to prepare them for the world they will enter. I think that this article is giving us a clue that social media will only gain importance in the world, and that we should be modeling it’s effective use as early as we can.  
These three observations, as well as my own use of social media, has encouraged me to break down another wall that exists between my classroom and the world my students live in.  While I know that the curriculum is the keystone to what happens in my classroom, exploring concepts through social media can be just the ticket to balancing what must be taught and what will not only engage students, but encourage them to move higher on Bloom’s taxonomy from simply knowledge of the concept to analysis and synthesis, in their seven year old minds.  
As I think about how I will set up an online environment for my future class, I reflect on a wiki that I set up for a grade 6 class who wanted a space to share and communicate.  I read somewhere about a continuum for adopting new technology, that goes from adoption through appropriation and invention, where at first one simply uses a technology similarly to how they have worked in the past, like sending chain letters through the mail, to now sending them via email to inventing new ways to use a technology to meet one’s needs.  Looking back on that grade 6 wiki, the students and teacher adopted the technology to meet their needs.  As I think about it, the teachers and students could have gone far beyond the way they initially used it, and used it as a space that was an extension of the classroom to discuss ideas and share their expertise.
Social networking in the classroom is an exciting new(ish) idea for teachers and students to explore!

Monday, 11 June 2012

The nuts and bolts of digital storytelling

Digital Storytelling is a hugely worthwhile activity to use in your classroom.  I have discussed the benefits and some resources for digital storytelling. Beyond theory, a practical guide to actually implementing an idea in your classroom is essential, so here it is! I mentioned that planning and preparation are key and I want to share my thoughts about the methods and steps that I have use for digital storytelling.  Before I ventured back into the classroom this year, I worked with 6 different schools, and worked with students and teachers on digital stories.  My process is tested and is based on reflection on my experience.  
A quick note- the benefits of digital storytelling are far reaching.  Working in a second language classroom, visuals are an essential tool for teaching and learning.  Digital storytelling allows second language learners to express imagery, tone and even content.  Students in my class have the advantage of reverting to their first language to clarify their thoughts, but many English Language Learners do not have that luxury.  Imagine the richness!s in communication that an ELL can share and not even speaking the same language!
The procedure that I follow when leading a digital story project are based on Bernajean Porter’s steps and my own experience.  The Digitales steps can be found here:
1.   Write a Script- 
An essential step.  At this stage, teachers and students should write like they normally would, following grade level expectations and writing based on whatever program you have been using.  We have been using Barbara Mariconda’s work called Empowering Writers, which is a student friendly guide to writing.  This step is is worth investing time, to get the best product from your students.
2.  Time to Storyboard!  
This is the most important step!  Take the time and effort with the students to develop the storyboard.  Properly completing this step will make the process much, much easier in the subsequent steps.  You can use any format that you like.  I found the ones on the Digitales Wiki to be student friendly and effective.  At first, I didn’t think the elementary storyboard was especially valuable, but my grade 1 and 2 students took the template and ran with it.  Clearly, the Digitales team did some user testing, because they work well for students.  
Now that the hard work is done, it’s time to create.  The Digitales resources suggests five more steps, but I think this is where the path diverges according to what you choose to create.
 3.  Collect your media
  • Take digital photos 
  • Select photos from past events
  • Collect images from the web
  • Produce other images like illustrations or clay representations
  • record or download sounds needed
  • record or download music needed
 4.  Build the story digitally.
You can use whatever program is available to you and your students.  Software and online tools all have advantages and disadvantages.  Take the time to experiment before you set your students at it. Here are a couple of programs that I have tried.
Microsoft Photostory-- a free download from Microsoft.  This program is very simple, and guides the user step-by-step through images upload to voiceover and conversion to a video file.  The downfall is the simplicity, as it can limit the user and does not accommodate video. 
Moviemaker for Windows- Usually on most standard Windows based machines, the user can mix photos, video, sound and music to weave their story.  This program can be very glitchy and can cause a level of frustration with students and teachers. 
iMovie- A great program if you are fortunate enough to have access to Apple machines.  
 5.  Add your voice over.
The voice of the creator brings the magic to the digital story.  Encourage your storytellers to develop the voice in their writing, and their physical voice in telling their story. 
6.  Add music, sounds, text and effects to enhance the story.
7.  Edit.
8.  Produce the final cut.
Now it is time to share the stories!  The creations that come out will be beautiful insights into the souls of your students.  They will burst with pride at their work.  Celebrate and share the stories within the classroom,and share the stories out within the school, to parents and within reason, share the stories out to the world.

The magic of digital storytelling

I love digital storytelling.  Love it!  Digital stories are a great entry point  to technology for students and teachers alike.  Story telling is such a central part of being human, and has been since ancient times.  We have a need to learn the stories of those around and before us, and a desire to share our own stories.  What people used to draw on cave walls is now posted to Facebook walls.  Digital storytelling refers to short (less than 8 minutes) productions, including various media like photographs, music, personal narrative voice,and video woven together to tell a story.  The story can be fiction, non- fiction, a personal narrative or an imaginative tale. Not only do digital stories nourish our human souls, they also encourage 21st century literacies skills like collaboration, creative thinking, technical ability, visual literacy and effective communication. 
Digital stories are both a great presentation tool, as students love to see and hear themselves in “video” and a great support for student’s story development.  Sometimes, students can get lost in their own writing.  They can ramble on, muddy the story progression and in the end not really tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.  But give a student a storyboard, and ask them to pick relevant images, music and sounds to compliment their story, and very quickly students recognize the clarity or lack thereof, in their story, and can edit and revise to improve their ideas.  
Digital story telling is also very motivating.  Naturally, in any classroom, you will have students who are reluctant writers.  The allure of publishing writing in an unconventional way often draws these reluctant in and often reveals an amazing creativity that got lost in words.  Students of any age are inspired to tell their story.
I have created digital stories with students from kindergarten to grade nine.  The results are always wonderfully beyond expectation.  Another great aspect of digital stories is that they can be as teacher supported as needed.  It is a great whole class modeled writing and creating activity, great for small group writing, and a worthwhile individual project as well.
The MOST important component to successfully crating digital stories in your classroom is teacher planning and preparation.  As the guide, the teacher needs to walk through the process and ensure that everything will move smoothly.  A teacher must consider the level of her students, and plan for interventions and supports accordingly.  Also, a teacher should test out each step of the production process, making sure all cameras work, the software is ready, microphones are compatible and the network can handle the projects.  If not, chaos will ensue!
To help guide my own process, the book Digitales by Bernajean Porter (an ISTE Award recipient by the way).  The book provides background and context to our story telling nature as well as practical steps about how to make digital storytelling happen.  Her website, is a treasure trove of information.  Bernajean catogorizes different types of “digitales”, such as “Itza Wrap” to showcase a personal experience and “docudramas” which use storytelling to explain a fact based concept, and on her site, there are many examples of different digital stories.  The website also includes a wiki with ideas, examples, research and step by step instructions.  On top of all that, there is a well developed rubric making tool to guide your assessment.  
If you are thinking of creating digital stories, check out this site!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Assessment and technology

Using technology as an assessment tool is a great way to usher the use of technology into the classroom.  I once worked in a school in a lower income area, with a very high English Language Learner (ESL) population.  Gaps in education, literacy and numeracy learning sometimes made it difficult to accurately assess a student’s ability.  It pushed me to consider alternate forms of assessment. In my view, assessment is based on the outcomes, not on how the student can express their knowledge of the outcomes.  Using technology is a great way to understand what a student knows.  
Recently, a colleague was telling me how overrun she was trying to accommodate students in grade 3 and 6 writing their provincial English and French writing examinations.  Instead of attempting to split herself into a hundred pieces, she decided to use simple technology to help the students and herself.  She used a voice recording application, recorded the instructions to the students then the students recorded their story.  The students could go back and review their stories and make edits orally, then the teacher sat down and scribed the story that the students had expressed.  
 Even in the last 3 years, the accessibility of tools to assist in assessment is much better.  Here is a list of how I have used technology to assess students.
  • Using a word processing program for all students to write text, especially those with fine motor difficulties, difficulties with letter formation and spelling
  • Using a simple text to speech app for students to record their thinking.
  • Using voice recorder in phones, ipods and laptops to record student thinking
  • Recording a students steps and thinking in solving a mathematical problem using Smart Notebook Recorder which records the screen and audio.  With the new direction of the Mathematics curriculum, it is important for students to explain their thinking.  Recoding their writing and audio provides not only the teacher with a snapshot of students thinking, but it can also be used to in instruction to use the thoughts of students to teach other students.
  • Put readers onto a Smart Notebook file (or PowerPoint), including the text and images, and have students record their voices reading.  Again the teacher gets an assessment snapshot, and other students can use the file again to practice reading with peers voice.
  • Using video cameras, cameras, phones etc to record student thinking and process in group work.  Teachers can’t always observe every group so students can create recordings of their process that can be included in the assessment.   This is especially valuable in math and science where the process and skills are very important.  \
  • Using various programs and media to complete projects in any subject area.
  • Digital stories (more to come...)
The possibilities are endless with using technology to assess students.  Of course, there are the possibilities of completing projects with curricular goals with various tools, programs and online spaces.  Even simpler, is using the things we have in the classroom to maximize our abilities to observe students, and for them to show us what they know!

The importance of professional learning

In a previous post, I may have made it seem like the teacher is not an important factor in the integration of technology in the classroom.  In fact, I believe the complete opposite.  Teachers, in elementary especially, are the gatekeepers to the technology that enters their classroom.  The most important factor in teachers opening their doors to new technology is professional development.  
When I commented on what teachers want, I wasn’t diminishing their vital role in the classroom and the need to be supported by well planned and well structured professional development.  What I do think needs to change is the culture of closed door teaching and learning, where the teacher shows little interest in being a lifelong learner, to improve and advance the education they offer to students.  
Someone recently commented on the term professional development versus the term professional learning.  While professional development is the prevalent term, many jurisdictions are moving away from PD to PLC.  I have struggled to understand the difference between PD and PLC, but the concept becomes clearer to me as I consider how teachers best learn to integrate technology into their practice.  The idea of professional development is a one shot, short session, where a teacher’s skills will be “developed”. A simple formula of adding something new to a teacher’s already existing skills, and presto, 2 hours later the teacher is better developed.  Somehow this doesn’t work, and when we look at  how we teach, by scaffolding, differentiating and supporting students, it’s clear why this model of professional development doesn’t work. 
To meaningfully use technology in the classrooms, teachers need to engage in professional learning, and preferably a professional learning community, or PLC. A teacher will not meaningfully and consistently use technology in the classroom without the time to learn and experiment, especially with peers.   For example, consider a jurisdiction that is creating Google accounts for all students and teachers.  The best case scenario for teachers to learn how to implement the wealth of tools offered by Google is not a one-time two hour session. It is several sessions, focussed not on the tools themselves but on using the tools to meet curricular objectives.  The focus of professional learning around technology should be to model the use of the technology as a tool for teaching or demonstrating an outcome, and not a “how to” of the tool itself.  
Learning about Google is a good example for best practice of technology professional learning because Google has built in collaboration tools.  Just as important as buy in, technical know how and identifying curricular links is the communal aspect of professional learning.  The concept of PLC, the model which many jurisdictions have gravitated towards, has embedded in it the importance of social learning and support.  The PLC model mirrors the idea of student centered classroom, where the learners explore and direct their learning to meet their needs.
At the personal, school and jurisdictional level, teachers, administrators and district level personnel need to look at not only the technology that they plunk into classrooms, but how to effectively support the meaningful use of the tools.