Friday, 26 October 2012

Teaching Old Stuff with New Tricks

This year has been a year of new ideas. Firstly, this is the first year I have fully implemented the History subject within the new Australian Curriculum. Secondly, it is the first year that I have used iPads in my classroom as a tool for learning and assessment.
Looking back at the year which is rapidly coming to an end, I am excited about the success I have had in using iPads with students to engage in historical inquiry in ways that would not have been possible without digital technology.
Digital technology has enabled me to collect numerous photographs of our local area that students have been able to explore, sort, order and select. Using the iPads, students have been able to examine the images closely. The photographs have inspired questioning, imagination, inquiry and inferring. Photocopied images in black and white would have reduced the quality to the point that many of the photos would have been unrecognisable. Using the original images (if I could even get hold of them) would be impractical and could be potentially damaging.

At our planning meeting for Term 2, we had agreed that students would be required to create a sequence of images and describe how our local war memorial had changed over time. Teachers not using digital technology gave their students three small, poor quality photocopies of images preselected by the teachers and had the students glue these in place and write about the changes. The many students who struggled with writing gave little detail in their descriptions and could only show limited understanding of what this local site reveals about the past.
Students using an app called Sonic Pics on the iPads were able to self-select and sequence three to five images from a collection of about twenty images that they believed best revealed particular aspects of local history. They then spoke freely about the images they had selected, justifying their choices and describing in detail things that had changed in the local area and the significance of the war memorial for the community today.
The iPads enabled young learners to employ higher level thinking skills and to express their own opinions about what they believed was important in the story about the past.
This term, students have been exploring changes in technology (particularly toys) and how these changes have affected the ways people work, travel, communicate and play.
Students are now using Pic Collage (a free iPad app) to manipulate and annotate images before transferring them to Sonic Pics to add audio explanation about how toys and games have changed. Students are able to search for their own images so their choice of subject is much more personal and not restricted by the teacher’s choice.
Of course, the historical inquiry is not restricted to what is able to be done solely with the iPads. Students have examined artefacts from the museum and those brought in from homes, and they have also written to their grandparents and posed questions to them. The grandparents (and aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers who have also responded) have been an invaluable historical source for the students. All of this valuable information collected by the students is now able to be skilfully collated and presented by the students who have become experts in using technology to create and communicate their ideas.
As a teacher, this year’s journey into the past using technology of the present, has been a great learning experience. For the students, using technology has empowered them to participate in genuine inquiry and to share their ideas with others within the classroom and beyond. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Express Yourself!

In any classroom attempting to hear everyone’s point of view is a challenge. In a class discussion only a small number of children can share before the responses are exhausted or the attention has dissipated. Attempting to visit each individual to hear discrete responses is time consuming and impractical. Individual interviews also rob the students of the opportunity to learn collaboratively. By the time I get around to my fast mathematical thinkers and ask them to explain how they reached their solution, the moment has passed and their responses are usually along the lines of “I just knew it”.

This project aimed to explore ways that digital technology could be employed in an early years classroom to allow gifted learners to express their knowledge and understanding in different subject areas by capturing thought processes and ideas in a timely manner and establishing a means of sharing ideas.
The group of learners targeted in this project are capable young students with an energetic thirst for variety in their learning experiences and a cheeky sense of creativity. These students are keen to share their opinions on issues and are capable of lightning fast thinking, particularly in Mathematics. Without a challenge the have the propensity to become challenging, hence, their super-powers must be harnessed for good, not evil.

My challenge became discovering ways that I could capture my students’ thought patterns and opinions and provide them a platform for sharing their thinking with an audience beyond their teacher.

Through this project, I experimented with a number of hardware and software options in order to discover ways that the students could successfully communicate their ideas. Often the first experiences needed to be heavily scaffolded, but the idea behind the project is to assist the students in developing the skills so they can work more independently later.

We used laptops, digital cameras, microphones, and iPads in our experiments but the iPad became the tool of choice due to its ease of use, portability, and availability in our classroom.

Two projects were most notably successful in allowing the students to express their ideas with a degree of independence: an enhanced poster with a short persuasive video embedded via a QR code, and brief explanations of mathematical thinking captured using the Explain Everything app.

Our first success was the result of a great number of failed attempts. As the teacher I was definitely in the learner seat on this project. The children were enthusiastic about learning and were happy to be part of the experiment. They were not easily put off by our setbacks. The process which eventually resulted in success involved the children combining quite a number of the skills they already had as well as integrating a few skills that were new to me as well.

The students had been involved in a whole class inquiry into how people, pets and native animals can live together sustainably. Towards the end of our investigation the students suggested a number of ways that we could change our behaviour to make our school and home environments more friendly for native animals.
Working in pairs, students selected one of the class suggestions and came up with three supporting reasons for their proposal. They created a visual image using a free iPad app called Pic Collage.
The pair of Year 2 students then worked with some Year 5 buddies to turn their ideas into a short persuasive speech. The Year 5s had developed some good persuasive writing skills due to copious amounts of NAPLAN preparation earlier in the year so we decided to put these skills to a much better use.
The Year 2s then used the iPads again and an app called Sonic Pics to record their speech using the image they created earlier in Pic Collage app as an illustration.
The students have used Sonic Pics for a number of projects throughout the year so this was a more practical choice than iMovie or other similar apps.
Once the students had created their recording I helped them upload the file to my YouTube channel.
Since it was the first time I had created QR codes with the students, I assisted them in doing this, but now they know the process, they may be able to do this step themselves in future tasks.
The students designed posters to promote their message and painted these. Once dry, they fixed the QR code onto the poster.
We displayed the posters around the school, and as part of the Australia Post Kids Teaching Kids Week activities, the Year 2 students demonstrated to a class of Year 1 students how to use the Scan app on the iPad to read the QR code and watch the movie they had created.
The students were so proud of their achievements that we later showcased this work again for our parents. If you would like to see their work, visit our class blog. The students love to receive comments about their work!

This experience with flexible and creative technology will now allow me to set more interesting challenges for the students, with confidence that they have the technical skills to share their ideas and thoughts with others.

Our second project involved a small group of students who are particularly talented in Mathematics. These young students competently add three-digit numbers requiring regrouping in their heads and have developed their own strategies for dealing with more complex calculations and larger numbers.
Even though I have worked with the whole class on using a variety of addition strategies in Mathematics, these students had difficulty explaining how they were getting their answers. Their responses were either: “I just knew it” or they would give me the name of a random strategy that we had discussed in class but couldn’t articulate why that had helped.
I was keen to assist these children in developing some skills in explaining their thinking because I know that they are going to be asked to “show their working” many times in their schooling.
There seemed little point in holding them back with the regular Year 2 curriculum when their mathematical reasoning appeared to be beyond this level, but I also wanted to be confident that their methods were grounded in logic and that they had a variety of effective strategies for basic calculations.
Rather than limiting their thinking about addition to one rigid algorithm and subjecting them to hundreds of repetitions, I encouraged them to use a variety of strategies and to attempt to explain what they were doing to demonstrate their mastery of the basic concepts.
At first the explanation process was awkward and slow, often not making sense to anyone but themselves, but since they were able to capture their thinking using Explain Everything on the iPad and play it back, as well as access the thinking of other students in the group, they eventually improved.
The next stage of this project will be to give these students an audience and purpose beyond having to justify their thinking to a teacher.

I plan to use the QR code idea again to create a series of “help posters” that can be used by other class members who might need further explanation on a particular strategy. Another future project might involve creating a “Maths Expert” blog as a platform for the students to showcase their thinking but also provide a service to a much wider audience.

The challenges in exploring this project were not related to the students but involved the limits of the technology in the setting. With no carpet and an unsealed dividing wall, the classroom is not the ideal location for creating good quality recordings. I experimented with many options for improving the sound quality and have still not discovered the ideal solution. Also, since the iPads are shared across the school and we get access to different iPads at random, tracking down the students work or continuing on saved work presented a number of challenges.
Despite these limitations, the project was successful in discovering new ways of capturing student thoughts and ideas and in empowering young learners to express themselves.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

#LMSLifeGroup on Twitter

Our school (and education system) is taking on a product called Life as a Learning Management System.
Through my efforts to find other people who are on the same journey learning about Life as I am, I have discovered some great educators who want to share ideas.
The UK seems to be quite well along the way in co-ordinating their support network but we Aussies are at the beginning of an exciting journey.
If you want to share in the excitement, tweet @connectedtchr with the hashtag #LMSLifeGroup and start sharing your journey with us.

Our Marvellous Toys

To assess the students listening skills this week we listened to an old song about a marvellous toy by Peter, Paul and Mary.

The first time we listened to the song, the students sat on the carpet with their eyes closed and concentrated hard on listening for key details that told them what it looked like and what it did. (Listening for key details is one of the English skills identified for Year 2 students in the Australian Curriculum.)

After that, they returned to their desks and we listened to the song again, this time pausing it after each verse and chorus so they could write down what they had heard in a concept map.

The third time they listened I let them draw what they thought it looked like based on what they had heard in the song.

While they were drawing I walked around and checked their work quickly to identify who had heard particular details. Fortunately I have a student teacher at the moment so she was able to scribe for my student who wasn't able to record his own ideas.

I explained to the children that the toy is imaginary so there is no "right" answer but we discussed the features it needed to have to be the toy from the song.
Finally we watched an animated version on YouTube and also read a book about the same marvellous toy the next day. The children really loved the song.

Here are our pictures of the marvellous toy:

We have started a written task as a follow up as well. Once they have finished I will have them post their descriptions on our class blog.

This was an enjoyable way to quickly assess their listening skills and to discuss different artists' impressions.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Toys Past and Present

Our History study this term will focus on how toys have changed over time.
This investigation will address the third point in Historical knowledge and understanding in the Australian Curriculum for Year 2:
The impact of changing technology on people’s lives (at home and in the ways they worked, travelled, communicated, and played in the past) (ACHHK046)
The children have written letters to their own grandparents, posing questions about the past, and tapping into their grandparents' wisdom as a source of historical knowledge.
We have also borrowed a collection of "artefacts" from the museum and of course, are using books and other written resources as further sources of historical knowledge.
One web-based resource which has been very useful in introducing some basic concepts is the Welsh produced web site: How toys have changed.
I have created a number of worksheets that I have used with differentiated groups to collect information from this website.
These worksheets are accessible from my google docs.
Worksheet 1 - Simplest sheet - scaffolded sentence writing.
Worksheet 2 - Collecting information about one toy from one period
Worksheet 3 - Collecting information (writing keywords) about a variety of toys from different times.
I hope these resources might be of use to you.

The Meaning of LIFE

Today I attended my second day of training in the LIFE Learning Management System. In spite of my own reservations about the suitability of this product for my particular needs over other available software by this afternoon I felt much more confident about how this product might be used in my school to enhance teaching and learning.
I have three main concerns about this learning management system and the way that it is being rolled out across the system I am working in (or at least in my own school).
Firstly, the package is not as useful for my early years classroom as it might be in other settings. I see that LMS can be very beneficial for tertiary and secondary educational settings,  in organising coursework, communicating between teachers and students and allowing collaboration between learners with flexible timing, however, I am currently teaching Year 2 (7 year-olds). Simply plonking something that it great for adult learners into an early childhood setting is not necessarily a good idea.
The process of logging in to the program, digging through the pages to the activity of the day is not simple and is made frustrating by the very slow loading. The "one-stop shop" package presents some advantaged in keeping the activities in one place and some uniformity across activities, but the tools themselves are not as useable and useful as other Web 2.0 tools freely available on the web, and much simpler for my young learners to access.
Secondly, the program is being forced randomly into our practice, rather than being used to address particular needs. At my school there are three teachers who are being trained in the first round and trying to implement the package. Due to the physical distance between our classrooms and the fact that we are in different grade levels spread across the school, it is difficult to feel like we are being supported by each other through this process. In our school we are expected to plan in Year level teams
(consisting of around 4 teachers) but each of us trialling LIFE are in different teaching teams, so we plan units, activities and assessments with our team and then go off on our own and try to "invent" reasons to implement LIFE into our planning and do this on top of everything that the other classes on our year level are doing. If our whole team was using LIFE then needs would arise during the planning phase (e.g.: how can we get our students to collaboratively brainstorm their initial thoughts on the topic) and then some of these needs would be able to be met with LIFE. The use of technology should be to solve an existing problem, not to create new ones. Our current approach is arbitrary implementation to use technology for technology's sake.
Finally, I strongly believe that the strength of technology (including LMS, Web 2.0 tools, iPads and the like) is the ability to enable true collaboration amongst learners. The LIFE LMS system is a walled vault. No-one from outside can see what my class is doing and they can't communicate with anyone beyond those that they could easily turn their heads and talk to. Where is the point in using a cumbersome program to talk to the person who is sitting beside you? How is this providing students with a real audience and a sense that they are part of a global community?
As learners ourselves, the program restricts teachers from easily sharing ideas about what they are doing. I can't view the great activities that might be being done at other schools within my system and I can't make contact with other teachers who might be working through the same issues as me.
The team implementing the LMS at a system level created a collaborative workspace for staff. One of the team wrote a post on a discussion board inviting questions and discussion. After my first training session I responded to this post and asked a question and also started my own conversation thread. Two months later there have been 7 views of the original thread (mostly by me) and only one view of my starter (which I think was me also). No-one, even the person who set up the collaborative discussion board, has bothered to read or respond to the conversation threads. Why are we hell-bent on having our 7-year-olds collaborating using the software if we don't see a place for such collaboration in our own professional learning?

So, this morning I voiced my concerns (quite strongly because I was feeling very frustrated) and to the credit of the person facilitating the training session, by this afternoon, I truly felt that my concerns had been heard and that there is some future for this initiative after all.

I am proposing to our principal that we change tact from our original implementation plan (which, in fairness, was devised before any of us knew much about what we were doing). I propose that the teachers who are in the initial implementation phase be placed in a single year level teaching team to address the concern that it is being treated as an adhoc and ill-fitted addition to our existing planning. I would suggest that year level would be older than Year 2 to increase the likelihood of initial success. Finally, I have proposed that we begin to use the tools as staff for our own collaborative planning so that all staff begin to develop a sense of what the program offers and how to use it before they are expected to implement it in their own classes.

After today, I am very confident that the LIFE Learning Management System can have a positive impact on the teaching and learning in my school.