Throwing it out there

The two of us – Chris Fox and Kristin Rowe, Team History in Grade 8 with “Ancient Civilizations” – have enjoyed the early days of our new course. We have had lots of space to dream, and we’ve been throwing around big ideas and grand visions regarding flipped classrooms, reverse instruction, the mastery learning approach, vodcasting, and computational thinking, etc, and what we could do in an ideal world/school/classroom.

But the dream is about to end, because we have to nail it down to reality! At this point, we have identified our year-long IT/IL project as the best opportunity to stretch ourselves regarding IT integration. So far, we have been working in collaboration with our middle school librarian to dip into database research and note-taking with NoodleTools alongside our daily classroom instruction, for which the textbook provides a foundation. The recurring themes holding our civilization study and research together are the five common Essential Questions (EQs). So the question is, besides picking up valuable research habits along the way, what is the final product for which they are doing all this research?

First, let’s consider the path we have started down, and what else we hope to encounter on this road. Students have been steered towards school-subscription databases like  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online as well as an appropriately titled  Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook for information and note-taking.  We will continue to broaden the resources to which we point the students; for example, we are want students to become Google power-users with advanced searching capabilities, and we want students to develop a more critical approach regarding website evaluation as we set them loose beyond the school database boundary.

We are encouraging students to practice titling their notecards with the five thematic EQs and “tagging” their notecards to allow for later comparison of aspects of civilization, and we know we want to include this higher-level thinking – a more in-depth comparative study – as a key descriptor of the final project.

But perhaps we don’t need to narrow it down much further than this:

  1. We want a comparative project around the EQ themes.
  2. We want student choice to allow them to pick up whatever ideas have intrigued them through the year.

And perhaps the rest should be a matter of student choice. One of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  as key to 21st century computational thinking is the idea that students should have exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals. If we narrow it down too far, we are taking away the opportunity for students to work through the chaos of choice to good decision-making around the most appropriate means for the most effective end. And if we want students to be able to follow their passions and for their passion to come through in their final products, then they need plenty of choice regarding final presentation of their learning.

Thus, our task would be to clearly define the options and support them with a framework for the process of planning and preparing a final project of their own design.

As we continue to brainstorm how students could present their research products, we really want to give student options regarding what tools they can use.  Of course, we have the standard GoogleApps or Inspiration 9.0 resources, but we are interested in exposing the students to a wide variety.  In our research, we are pleasantly surprised to find so many great sites about web 2.0 tools.  One of our favorite sites is Web 2.0: Cool Tools for Schools. It provides a plethora of options, each with a unique twist on its special features.  For example, one program that is new to us is ClipGenerator. Students can create their own cool video clips, add music and images, plus their own photos, and finish with a professional film cut and animation.  What a great way to hook the audience with the research topic.

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The Simple Show describes applications for the tool and “how to” work with it:

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We are shooting for a new way to present research, using collaboration and creativity.  It would be easy to simply have students complete a traditional two or three page research paper with cover page and Works Cited, but we want to arm the students with tools in order to be truly successful as they move to Upper School and prepare for what lies ahead –  the resources and opportunities are endless.  So, we are excited for the first time to throw this challenge out there to the students and see how it goes!

The Power of Partnering for better IT/IL Skill-building

In an integrated model of technology education, a great deal of responsibility seems to fall on the Technology Coordinator and the Librarian to ensure that IT/IL goals (be they ISTE NETs or AASL Standards or a school’s own home-grown measurements of learning) are met for each child in each classroom at each grade level. This really means, that it happens through sheer force of personality  and persistence. Or when personalities clash between classroom teacher and IT/IL coordinator(s), it might not happen at all.

As described in an excerpt from an ISTE publication, “IT’s Elementary! Integrating Technology in the Primary  Grades” it takes an instructional choice that generally includes collaboration and deliberate planning. And “it takes someone with real vision — an administrator, a teacher, or a specialist—to model, encourage, and enable integration.” I am very lucky to have such a special someone in my life: our school’s MS Librarian, Peter Giordano. He is working with us to bring our grand promises to Grade 8 parents regarding our new history course to reality. He is helping us achieve effective IT and IL integration as described in a recent Edutopia article (Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?), i.e. with routine and transparent use of technology to support curricular goals.

At a recent Parent Evening  my colleague, Chris Fox, and I introduced the course and made a series of sweeping statements about the critical thinking skills we intend for our students to develop through the year. In particular, I want to focus here on our final promise – namely, to advance our students’ research and information literacy skills:

Through a series of cumulative lessons interspersed through our units and created in collaboration with our MS Librarian, Mr. Giordano, students will become more advanced users of research tools such as NoodleTools for note-taking and citation, and more familiar with the great variety of high-quality databases and other reference resources that students can expect to use again and again in Upper School. And they will become better able to organize, analyze, and synthesize that information. Because, of course, in this information age, our students don’t have trouble accessing information, but they do need to become more critical consumers of the information, and its sources.  So our study of Ancient Civilizations will provide a platform for the development of these very important 21st century skills.

So, this is where we rely a great deal on the vision and good will of  the librarian. Essentially, we are working together to create a year-long project that exposes students to the quality range of databases and eBooks that the our school libraries make available, but that are also sadly underutilized by our student body because Wikipedia is just a few keystrokes away. We want to push them to explore powerful databases such as  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online and Merriam-Webster and World Atlas and World Book Encyclopedia and Ebsco Host and Gale Opposing ViewPoints in Context and …. the list of incredible resources goes on. We want students to recognize, as wonderfully up-to-date and accessible as Wikipedia is, that some academic inquiry will be better served by tools more varied and powerful than a mass-wiki produced for free and that anyone can edit.

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We certainly aren’t seeking to replace Wikipedia as a tool for students to use. But we do want to challenge students to realize in what ways Wikipedia is limited, and therefore the importance of having access to a toolkit, rather than just one fast-food-like research tool. In reading about CT (computational thinking), I realize that we are specifically tackling one of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  – we want to give students the exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals.

With the five essential questions providing the thematic thread though the six ancient civilizations that we study in Grade 8, we have used these questions as the starting points for reading, noting and citing, using the all-in-one research organizer, note-card and bibliography-developer, NoodleTools.

For our first civilization, Mesopotamia, we set aside two mini-lessons to begin what will become a year-long cumulative project. Of course, we had to walk students through a major start-up session to begin with because they have had a potted exposure to this tool through middle school. Some Grade 8s already had several rounds of experience while sundry others had somehow slipped through the cracks. And then there are all the new kids, mostly with no prior exposure. Unfortunately, NoodleTools is not intuitively set up so it takes a little navigation and getting used to. In advance, our savvy librarian had made sets of “Bread-crumbs” instructions available in the online classroom (OLC, powered by Blackbaud) course dedicated to the MS Library resources. He had created multiple short instruction files such as “how to cite an online database” and “how to add tags to a notecard” so students could pick and choose step-by-step instructions to follow, or simply charge ahead.

To answer the first set of EQs (essential questions) relating to the environment, we simply directed students to “get their feet wet” with Grolier Online  and Encyclopedia Britannica, the two middle school staples. Straight away, however, we delivered choice and room for individual learning needs/styles. For example, Britannica actually includes the Elementary Encyclopedia which is the easiest to use, Comptons which is great for middle school, and the world renowned Britannica which covers a whole universe of information. This menu of choice is great for kids who don’t want to advertise that they are ESL students or that they struggle with grade-level reading comprehension because they can independently and without fanfare select the most appropriate reading.

For round two and the remaining EQs, which focus on innovation and change in civilization as well as modern-day connections, the librarian was excited to share with students a new Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook. All very straightforward stuff.

But we are ratcheting it up a level as we move forward into our next civilization. The EQS will be recycled for the sake of civilization comparison – once again, human interaction with the environment + innovation and change – but we will layer into the resource selection the need to evaluate conflicting viewpoints. We also intend to do at least one “round” on advanced Google searching. And I do think we will want to get to Wikipedia, after all, and examine the discussion that goes into construction of the wiki pages, because there is certainly value in that kind of analysis, also.

We will continue to add levels of challenge into the EQ-based research with each round. Meanwhile, the MS librarian is working with the US librarian to ensure that Grade 8 students will be introduced to all the research tools and strategies they can anticipate using in the first couple of years of upper school. We know that next year in Grade 9, and for every year of school thereafter, students can expect to write a research report of significant magnitude. We also know we can reduce the stress involved if students are already familiar with the recipe ingredients for these research reports, so this is obviously one goal of the Grade 8 research project. But a research report??! We know we don’t want to go to that level of formality yet. And we don’t want to narrow it down and prescribe too much, either. That would negate the purpose of filling up their IT/IL toolkit through the year, if at the end we were to snatch back the possibility of having students select the most appropriate tools to achieve their goals. (For an interesting conversation about the place of traditional research reports in education today, see Are Research Papers a Waste of Time?)

By the end of our study of the six civilizations, the students will have piles of digital notecards that are tagged by EQ, unit, and topic, ready to be used to compose a final project. But just what that project will be, exactly, we don’t know yet. Perhaps, as David Warlick advocates in his blog, it will be more of an independent study type of project where students have access and now familiarity with a wide variety of tools, and they could design a project that applies to something – anything – that has piqued their interest through the year.

Perhaps this will turn out to be the focus of our final COETAIL course project. Perhaps…