Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Speaking of Motivating Students...

Looking for a new way to motivate students? This year my students and I have discovered a nifty tool that we have used for different types of publishing. As mentioned in a previous post, my students were unmotivated readers, which often impacted their desire to write, create, and publish. Then, thanks to some reading on Twitter and the blog-o-verse, I discovered Voki.

Voki allows the user to create a personalized talking avatar that can be easily embedded into wikis, blogs, profiles, and email. And even better, it wasn't blocked at school. This was perfect for my students to use for their writing and publishing for The Coast to Coast Chronicles. Voki has the option for the creator to type the text they want spoken or record their voices with their avatar. This was great for those special needs/ELL students who needed extra practice recording their voices fluently, affording me a tool to assist in my differentiated lessons.

Initially, my students wanted to create them as a "book teaser" to give their audience from The Coast to Coast Chronicles (over 300 students across the country in grades 3-7)  the opportunity to learn about a book that they enjoyed and get them hooked so that they would want to read the book as well. Having a new tool seemed to encourage my students to want to read so that they could contribute through this medium. Other students who saw these first Vokis, asked my students for directions on how to create them, letting my students (once again) become the teachers... a big boost in self-esteem for these hesitant readers, writers, and speakers. And let's face it, who of us doesn't love playing with the mouse and watching the avatar's eyes follow it?

After these first Vokis were created, my students began to apply this tool towards publishing their writing for other projects and in other content areas. While working with the astronomy students, many of my students were inspired by the astronomers that they learned about from their older counterparts. Since we were publishing on the theme of Exploration for our 7th edition, several of my students, who had not previously chosen to use Voki, created Astronomer Vokis.

This week, yet another idea arose from my students. We needed to compose a thank you note to a couple of different people/groups. We were discussing several different ideas, and one of my learners suggested that we create a Voki to express our gratitude. He even added that not only would it be a creative way to write a thank you note, but it would also teach the other classes/individuals a cool new tool that they could start using too. Cool, huh? My fifth graders were finding new ways to apply a familiar tool to publish their writing and use it to also influence and educate others. Nice thinking. Wish I had thought of that.

So next time you have a student who needs a differentiated lesson in writing, reading,or speaking, or perhaps they may not be highly self-motivated, maybe Voki could be used to help meet those needs the way that it has helped me meet the needs of some of my students.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Let's Play!

Teaching in a school where the population is very transient, we are always getting new students that join our learning community. I overheard a quick conversation between a new student and a current student that set my mind to thinking. Fridays have been designated as test prep days for our school. In fact, school-wide we have been giving practice tests throughout the year. On Friday, the students were taking one of these practice tests. The new student looked at one of the other students and said, "You know Mrs. Ramsay loves these test days. All she has to do is sit behind her desk while we do all the work." The other student immediately jumped in, "NO, she doesn't. Mrs Ramsay wants to play with us and not do her boring teacher work." Wow, out of the mouths of babes. This is not something that I had ever verbalized or thought about  in these terms, but it is the absolute truth.

Now before people get all upset by the kids talking about us playing (including a past version of  my present day self), I want to stress how much rigorous work my students do daily. In fact,  my students often comment on how we get more done before 9:00 am than most classes get done all day. At the end of the school day, they are always amazed that it's time to go home because they have been so engrossed in their meaningful work, they've lost track of time. It frustrates them when their collaborative projects, small group time, or peer work is interrupted.

Hearing this student's perspective of what I do everyday in the classroom makes me smile. These fifth graders have picked up on something that I think many teachers are missing out on. We should be someone who wants to participate in the activities and projects along side them, not in front of them. Our time should be spent with them, not behind a desk. Play also denotes someone who is having fun, and we should have a lot of fun in our classrooms. If we're not, we must doing something wrong.

I'm so glad that I overheard this conversation. It reeinforced to me the importance of spending time listening, guiding, and interacting with my students. So as you enter your classroom, get out from behind your desk and out of the front of the classroom. Sit down with your students and participate in their learning discussions. Do those activities that you spent so much time planning and implementing with your students. You (and your students) may find a new perspective on your role in the classroom.

I can't wait for tomorrow so that we can PLAY some more. Anybody want to join us?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The "C" Word

In education today, there is a lot of discussion about the four C's... collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. However, another C-word has been on my mind lately. That's the word commitment. In the last couple of weeks, there seems to be an epidemic of lack of commitment within my professional arena ranging from the professionals that I surround myself with to my students and their parents. It leads me to wonder, does commitment mean anything anymore? As teachers, what are we teaching our students about commitment? Following through? The importance of being good to your word?

Although immensely rewarding, we know that the job of an educator is difficult. It is definitely not for the weak of heart. As educators, our students are looking to us not only to lead them in the right direction for the best education that we can provide them, but they are also watching our actions. What we say; what we don't say. What we do; what we don't do. Are we teaching our students that when the going get tough, throw your hands up and walk away? Are we showing them that the behavior seen on today's reality shows is acceptable and each person has the right to trample on others regardless of their feelings, their hardwork, personal background, or life experiences? Do we play the "blame game" and not accept responsibility for our actions? I certainly hope not; the implications for the future are devastating.

Experience has taught me that for many of our impressionable students, we may be the only rational adult they encounter in their lives. When these obstacles come up (and they always do), I have found that by leading a discussion with my students, letting them draw conclusions and make lifelong applications. This is a powerful tool for them to discover the importance of these lifelong lessons. After all, we all face disappointments that we cannot control which are forced upon us by others and outside factors. What we can control, is how we react.

So when we enter our classrooms today, I encourage all of us (me included) to remember the lessons that we teach our learners that are not on our lesson plans. It is up to us to lead them towards valuing hard work, critical thinking, problem solving and staying the course regardless of how bumpy it might be. Let's teach them a lesson in commitment by staying committed to them; their future depends upon it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Students as Teachers

Last year, I was given a challenge of becoming a self-contained classroom teacher, teaching all academic subjects to the same group of learners each day. Every year previous to that year, I had taught Reading Language Arts or a combination of Reading Language Arts and Social Studies. It seemed a daunting task to have to effectively add math and science to my repertoire. What I quickly discovered as I started digging into those subjects was that so much focus was put onto reading and math that science and social studies took a back seat. I didn't want that for my students. I wanted for them to gain a sense of wonder for the world around them and realize how much it impacts their every day lives.

Although I felt that I had a limited knowledge of the content for the science course of study, I began searching out experts who could (through the use of technology) join our class, bringing a different aspect to our class projects, labs, and experiences. I've had the good fortune to meet Pamela Harman, a Geoscience teacher at Spain Park High School, through the Alabama Network of NBCTs. I asked her if she thought her students would be interested in working with my students in places where our content overlapped. Her enthusiasm in tackling this new collaborative partnership was infective and we set off together on our new venture.

For our first collaborative experience, her students did presentations about significant astronomers for my students via Skype. As I mentioned in a previous post, my students are currently creating interviews/conversations/dialogues between two different explorers or innovators. Her seniors taught my 5th graders about people that they had never heard of and set off a chain reaction of researching for more information to include in their own projects. When reading my students' reflections after this experience they said things like "You did a great job. You didn't need to be nervous," "this experience was life changing," and "I look forward to teaching you more about technology."  Of course their reflection revealed changes they would like to see in the future.There was an overall consensus that they felt the need to give back, to teach the older students.

That opportunity came this week. Pamela's students were preparing to study Astronomy instruments. She asked if my students would be willing to teach her students a lesson on concave and convex lenses via Skype. My students were thrilled with this opportunity, Although their nerves manifested themselves throughout the process, they remained confident that they could teach these older students something of value.

As a whole group, we discussed what they felt made a good lesson...the ways they liked to learn. Then my 5th graders brainstormed ideas and built an interactive lesson in which all of the students involved could participate. They decided to start the lesson with a poll so that they could connect the lesson to something personal. Their poll was created on Poll Everywhere and included finding out how many people were farsighted, nearsighted, both or neither. Students could take the poll online or via their cellphones. They created a Wallwisher to house all of our links for the lesson and to lead into their next activity, having the Astronomy students create "stickies" to tell what they already knew about convex and concave lenses.

Most aspects of the implementing of the lesson were tackled by pairs of students. After the introduction activities, two of my students taught about concave lenses and two taught about convex lenses. Each pair created multiple diagrams to hold up in front of the camera for the other students to see. Then I had a student who volunteered to teach about Benjamin Franklin inventing bifocals (which ties into what we're studying in Social Studies). He explained how they worked and even had a pair of bifocals to hold up to the camera and demonstrate how it worked. Throughout these minilessons, my students took time to ask for some audience participation.

To wrap up and do an overview of the lesson, one of my students created and performed a rap about convex and concave lenses.  To insure that all of the students could understand and catch all of his meaningful phrases and words, he created a podcast and posted it with the words onto our class' science wiki. We put a link to that page on the Wallwisher so that the SPHS students could view it again later. Then two more students created a quiz on ProProfs Quiz Maker to assess how much was learned from their lesson and as one student put it, "to see if you were listening to us."

Yes, this lesson was designed, created and implemented by 10 and 11 year old students. Did these students know how to teach? Did they think about different kinds of learners? Did they make the learning active? Did everyone learn something and have fun? YES!!! When I read my learners' reflections that they wrote at the end of this 25 minute lesson, their observations further solidified my belief that you learn much more teaching something than just sitting and passively getting information. They understood that. They understood how to connect a lesson to real life, how to keep it interesting by varying the activities and keeping them interactive, and how to assess the learning of the other students. And, they understood what so many teachers are supports good learning; it's not a separate entity.

On their way out the door with huge, confident smiles on their faces, they turned in their reflections. They asked, "When are we doing this again?" Soon, very soon.