Monday, 23 February 2015

What Happens When the PD is Over?

We've all been to the most amazing professional development workshops, conferences, weekends, you name it. The ones that just inspire you when you needed it most, gets you thinking about your classroom in a whole new way and excited to start implementing the many new ideas first thing Monday morning at 9am.

Then reality hits - paperwork, attendance, marking, planning, meetings, field trips, after school activities, did I miss anything? As much as we intend to try out all of our new tricks and share them with the rest of our school community, how often does that really happen when you are faced with all of the normal time consuming components of your job?

What I've learnt about all of those ideas that you get beyond excited about don't usually ever happen. I'm as guilty as anyone and I'm the girl who loves learning new things all the time. While I am learning them, I don't always get the chance to apply them.

So here's my suggestion:

1. Choose a couple of ideas. Just 2 or 3 ideas really that you think you can implement within the next week. They don't even have to be big. When I attended the EdTechTeam Summit in Thailand, I focused on learning what I could about creating websites. It was something I was currently working on for my own personal site so I figured I could build on that. I bookmarked a few resources for selecting colours and creating patterns. I also knew my students would be creating their own sites in about a week's time so it would be something I could show them to do to.

2. Actually do it. In an hour workshop, you don't always get enough time to figure it all out the first time. So spend a little bit of time on your own walking yourself through the steps. Trial and error is a beautiful thing and I find it's when I work best really. I wanted to become better at creating my own colour palettes using some of the website resources I had used in the workshop and also how to create my own patterns from those colour palettes using Colour Lovers. Some steps you remember from doing it in the workshop, others you have to piece together from when you were trying to listen and do at the same time. Eventually, you figure it out.

3. Do it again. Repeating something or trying a different way of doing the same thing really helps to solidify the new skill. I played around and probably created about half a dozen or so of colour palettes and then more than a dozen patterns just for fun. Learning happens through exploration.

4. Go back to that list of 2-3 items you wanted to try and try another one. What else did you love from your workshop? I also liked playing with Google's MyMaps. I had used it before but sometimes you need a friendly reminder of a certain tool before you figure out it's a perfect fit for what's coming next in your unit. For me, that was using it to document different ecosystem imbalances around the world, having students include pictures and

5. Share what you've learnt...even with one person. Knowledge for the sake of your own personal gain is one thing but being able to share with others is just as important. For me, I shared the website design tools with my students immediately. The first time around, I only had them choose a colour palette with 2-3 colours and then create their website banners using those colours. From there, they could customise whatever they could find in the settings.

6. Then share it again. Using what you learnt in a professional development session makes you feel like it was worthwhile. After my students had made their websites for their online courses, I pulled 2 students aside for a project for our Head of Primary. He needed to spruce up a website for a workshop he was running. I had the students create a colour palette and make a banner with the colour palette. After that, I introduced them to how to make a pattern for the background of the site and let them have a go at it.

It didn't stop there though. About another week or so later, I met up with a few of the Year 6 students who were working on their exhibition projects and wanted to make a website as part of their action portion. I walked them through all of the same steps from start to finish but along the way added in how you could change the look by using images as a background or creating colour palettes from an image. In addition, I provided them with more websites and options to customise their sites.

By taking one small focused idea from a professional development workshop, I was able to turn the idea into action through practice and practical application with my students. I am still seeing the aftereffects in my classroom of the workshops I attended a month later. This to me is making meaningful connections and creating an ongoing learning opportunity long after the workshop facilitators are gone.

It's not worth overwhelming yourself and setting yourself up for failure when you say you will do 43 new things by the end of the month based on what you might have learnt in an afternoon, day or weekend. What I've learnt is that you really have to make your professional development experiences work for you.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

One Strategy for Research Notes

When I went to elementary school, I learnt how to write research notes. There was all this bibliography stuff you had to write down for each book you took your notes from, you weren't allowed to copy the words directly from the book and you had to rewrite it all in your own words. My notes would be on multiple pieces of paper and I never could really find the piece of paper I wanted when it came to writing my reports. None of that has really changed, just where we keep track of our notes.

For most, it's no surprise we first turn to Google for our research. With all of the scholarly articles online, websites and ebooks, there isn't as much need to go into a library, dust off an old encyclopaedia and crack it open to the page you are looking for. Where we look for our materials has changed and so has how we record our notes.

For our current unit about ecosystems, where essentially my students were doing a massive research project to gather the information they needed to successfully create an online course for other students, it was evident from the start that research notes was most definitely going to be an important skill to teach.

After we had decided on lesson topics, the students brainstormed all of the questions they could think of initially in one Google Document.

From there, they created and linked a separate Google Doc for each topic. This would help them go back and build their levels based on the different topics selected. The students pasted their questions into the document. As they found information that fit a particular question, they were able to make notes on the topic. Often they chose to research by theme but at times students could jump from one page to the next easily without losing any of their notes. 

For their bibliography, they pasted the links into the bottom of each page. We talked a lot about what plagiarism was and how to avoid it by changing it into their own word right from the moment they create their research notes. As Year 5 students, I didn't have them create full bibliographies as they took down their research notes just yet but it was a start in the right direction. 
This of course is just one strategy that could help students organise their notes when researching for a project but by no means the only way. I had different groups record their notes using different methods but it was another tool to add to their repertoire. 

Mystery Skype - Not Just A Geography Lesson

Our class has been regularly enjoying Mystery Skype sessions for the last few weeks at the request of my students. It is amazing to see the thrill and excitement in the classroom when I tell them I've arranged for us to Skype another class.  Learning and conversing with students from another part of the world is really quite something.

I was speaking with a colleague and had to excuse myself to go prepare my laptop for the Skype call when they said, "Well what's the point? Don't they just ask questions and guess where the other class is?" The simplest response - yes they ask questions and guess the other class' location. The more complex one - it is so much more.

We have had the pleasure of learning with students from various parts of Asia, Australia and New Zealand with another one on it's way from Canada (my stepmother's class!). My students have the opportunity to connect globally and begin to understand the world around them.

It's not just about answering a few questions either. We have played mathematics games online with other students using various applications. This past week, our class Skyped our friends in India and shared some songs in celebration of Chinese New Year. For our friends in New Zealand, we had to create a video as a class to give them our clues as the time difference didn't allow us to communicate during our school day. We've also continued the dialogue with some classes using Google Documents to ask more questions about the region and expand our knowledge. We've connected Skype to our unit about communication tools and how communication can be hindered at times. Finally, we've developed our oral communication and presentation skills.

The conversation never ends when the Skype call ends. Just over a week ago we connected with a class in Brunei. Once we hung up, a few students were asking more about what it would really look like in Brunei. I asked the students to go onto Google Earth to find a location within  Brunei. Then, they were to go onto Street View. From there, they were able to really to see the different landforms and lifestyle by looking around in 360 view. This also connected to our unit about ecosystems where we started to explore what habitats and animals would be more suited to this region than ours. After a bit of exploration, the students were having so much fun on Google Earth, I couldn't bare to ask them to stop. So I decided to throw a poetry lesson at them using visual images (our current focus in reading and writing). I asked the students to choose anywhere on Earth that inspired them - a place they had been, where they might want to visit some day, somewhere they felt comfort, or simply a random spot. From there, they had to use what they saw when they zoomed into the surroundings and create a poem and try to incorporate some literary devices we had learnt about earlier in the week. Truly, they created some creative and captivating poetry. Some then took screenshots of their locations to add to their poems in a Google Document or other presentation form. Because of Mystery Skype, it inspired an afternoon of transdisciplinary learning that I had not planned for.

All that from just a 'few questions' and guessing a location.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Multiplication War

Teaching math has changed for me this year. When there is a game to be played, it makes learning fun. Today we were taking up a preassessment and determining our action plans for growth over our numeracy unit and it was feeling a little bit blah. So out I whipped one of my favourite math games I hadn't yet played with my kids- multiplication war.

War used to be a favourite card game of mine as a kid that I would play with my mom or sister. With the deck split equally in two piles, each of the players would turn over the top card at the same time and the highest card would win the round and keep the cards. The point of the game was to have all the cards eventually. 

With a simple twist, I turned this into an engaging math game. When the students turned over their cards at the same time, they had to multiply the values of both cards together and yell out the answer. The first person with the correct answer would win the round and keep the cards. 

Worked like a charm! It turned out to be an indoor break time after math due to the Singapore rain and I couldn't get my kids to stop! Easy and fun way to practice your multiplication tables without feeling like you are writing them down over and over again. 

When Frustrations Hit, What Really Matters

Documenting one class' approach to creating online courses for students by students...

Things had been going well in the research phase of our online courses with the kids really getting into taking notes and using lots of good sources of information. Today we began working on putting the content online and today was the first day I felt we were going nowhere. In an hour and a half of working on it, I began to doubt this idea of students creating their own online course. I doubted my kids but in reality, I was doubting myself. 

With all that my students had done this year in terms of student voice, I thought this was the next step and when I wasn't seeing their research translate onto their sites today, I didn't think it was going to work. I thought this wasn't the right approach and my students might not even be fully understanding the content. The question of 'Do I just abandon this project?' kept playing over and over and over in my head. It was heartbreaking to think this idea might not be working the way 'I' want it to. 

Before I headed off to my dodgeball CCA today, I had a brief conversation with my teammate who followed up with an email full of support and suggestions of how I could reroute if I had to. Still then, I wasn't sure to jump ship or stay on course and plough ahead. 

It had been a frustrating afternoon, to say the least. But when I sat down at my computer tonight to look through a bit of the student's work, something kind of changed. I read through a few of my students' weekly emails to me. Every single email mentioned the project and how much fun they were having. They were thrilled to be building a site and working as a team. Every slide on the weekly reflection presentation to parents had a comment about how excited they were about the project or that they wanted to do more of it or how much they were learning or how much fun they were having. 

Maybe it's not quite going the way I had expected. Maybe it won't really work out in the end. Maybe I can change it up a bit and figure out a slightly different approach. But does it matter if they don't learn every single fact about ecosystems in the next 4 weeks? Maybe not. Today I had students searching for images that had permission to be reused and modified instead of just any pictures. I had students helping students and trying new strategies for presenting their work. I had students wanting to find out information about things that interested them within a broader topic and paraphrasing notes. Those are skills that will last beyond the unit and end of the day. 

When it comes down to it, it's not all about the content, maybe all that really matters is that my students are excited to be there and they are having fun. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Making Teams That Work

Documenting one class' approach to creating online courses for students by students...

Making groups isn't easy as a teacher. You try to balance the boy/girl ratio, abilities, special needs, interests, and everything else that might affect the group dynamic. You want your students to be successful when working as a team rather than spending more time about who's going to do which job. 

Our class previously had discussions about the needs for diverse teams as part of our design thinking cycle during our inventions unit. Basically what it came down to is 'your best friend isn't necessarily your best teammate'. We talked a lot about how we need to have groups with different abilities, talents and most importantly different perspectives. Different perspectives were important so that each teammate could look at the challenge from a different view and give unique insight to the team, which would be in turn push the thinking more within the group more. In terms of making groups, I usually allow my students to create their own as long as it's diverse and is a group that can be productive, which usually works out as my students enjoy that freedom to choose.

This time I decided to have a slightly different approach to the team building process. I outlined 8 jobs that that thought might be useful in the group throughout the project. Each job had some expectations.

1. Leader - Overall leader of the group but not the 'boss'. Makes sure group is moving forward. Communicates challenges to the teacher.
2. Encourager - Stays positive. Encourages others to participate, share and work as a team.
3. Materials Minder - Gather materials as needed.
4. Time Keeper - Use the timer to help the group be aware of time. Provide the team 5-minute warnings, etc. when the time is coming to an end.
5. Organiser - Helps to organise team documents and items.
6. Techspert - Provides tech support and guidance to those in need.
7. Task Minder - Makes sure everyone is on task and focused.
8. Planner - Helps to lead the group in what's next for the group.

After I shared the different tasks and we discussed each one, I had students rank themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being an area of growth and 5 being a major glow. Based on their glows and grows, it was easy to see students strengths and areas of development. This was very important to self-identify in order for making a successful team. I asked students to star the roles they had identified themselves with a 4 or 5.

We discussed that we all have areas of growth and strengths. It is important to surround ourselves with people who are stronger than us in our areas of growth and still working on things we are strong with. This will allow us to learn from each other.

The next task was for students to find a group of 4 that was diverse. The students self-identified as a 4 or 5 in a range of the areas in order to make their group. At first, I wasn't sure the students would really buy into this and just choose their friends but once we began, they were really looking at each others' lists and saying things like 'I'm sorry we are too much the same to work with each other' and 'We aren't alike so we should be in a group'. The groups worked out really well for the most part. 3 of the 4 groups are quite all around strong and diverse. The 4th group is a generally lower ability and will just receive a bit more teacher support in the end.

I wanted the team to bond a bit so I gave them some tasks - 1. Create a team name, divide the job and make a team chant or handshake. This was simply done as a way to watch the children interact with each other but primarily to build collaboration, communication and a sense of a cohesive team.

We've been working in the teams for a few days now and I haven't had any issues with any groups in terms of teamwork. Actually, I've had the opposite - many of the groups are more productive than the students when they work individually. In addition, my students are taking their roles quite seriously and I always have 4 timers in front of me within seconds of being set off to work to synchronise our timers. It will be interesting to see if these groups continue to grow in productivity as our time on the project goes on.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

30 minutes - Build A Google Site From Scratch

Documenting one class' approach to creating online courses for students by students...

Sometimes I throw my kids a challenge that might seem a little unreasonable.

"Let me show you how to build a Google Site from a blank template. I've got about 10 minutes to show you some things you need to know or might want to try. Then you have 30 minutes to design - that's it." 

But that's exactly what we did today.

I pre-made the 4 google sites that students would be working on today. (1 for each group of 4 students) and shared it with all group members as owners. I had done it the night before and had been getting emails ever since it hit the students' inbox as they were excited to get started. The sites were simple, boring and if my students had anything to do with it, about to be transformed to look nothing like that ever again. 

After showing my students this site, I showed them my professional site I had just created a few weeks prior. This was done to give them a sample of what they would be doing without showing them an exact site they could replicate about ecosystems. They had seen it before as I had asked them for their feedback on it, but this time it was good for them to see a before and after type demonstration. In addition, I find my students like to see that I have done or am doing the same thing they are as it helps to remove the divide between teacher vs. student. 

The first thing I suggested the students did was to choose 2-3 colours as their theme for their site. It was important that the students thought about the content that would be put on their course, colours that complemented each other and represented the group as they wanted to be seen. One group was very specific in asking for a site to match colours and I provided them with and as reference points. I even had one group create a colour swatch with their 3 colours in an image with the hex#'s as a reference point for the entire team and utilised them to customise other fonts later. Most groups chose colours that worked well together. 

From there it was time to make the site look better than it did. Most teams split in half to conquer site design/layout and creating the header in pairs.

The header was an important part of the site for the students as it would be on their site no matter where they were on their site. There were lots of options for creating headers - Google Drawing, Pages, Canvas, but most went to the internet to find an initial image that inspired them. This was in and of itself an important lesson in how to search. After searching for an image, I suggested to students they selected 'Search Tools' and then 'Usage Rights' where they could select images that were 'labelled for reuse with modification'. 

After students had selected their image and saved it to their desktop, they could open it in Preview and adjust the size from the Tools drop-down menu. We did our best to resize the image into an appropriate header size. Some additional features at this point such as text. 

Then it was off to to use Pixlr Express. As we are a Google Apps For Edu school, we chose to go to our Drive, select new, connect more, connect more apps and choose to connect Pixlr Express to our drive. From there, students had the option to make adjustments, add text, stickers, overlays and effects to create a header that suited their particular taste. Here are a few they came up with. Most teams tried quite a variety of options and ideas before settling on the headers you see here. 

 These were easy to insert as a header and we also removed the logo from the site design. 

The other team members were in charge of the look of the rest of the page, while still communicating with their team as a whole to create a cohesive project. The students had to make a number of tabs for their different lessons/ levels within their courses. They could choose from a horizontal navigation or a sidebar navigation. It was unanimous that the horizontal navigation was the preferred choice by the student. 

Once the header and tabs were in place, the students could just really begin to play around with the overall design. I showed my students how to manage the site using themes, colours and fonts. Many became fascinated in ways they could change the hover colours, spacing and shape of the tabs, colours of different sections and adding images. 

There was a lot of engaging discussions going on along the way such as debating colour choices, the alignment of tabs, and if the picture of a puppy as a header was the best choice of the unit. As I walked around and also met with groups to check in on their progress, it was wonderful to just be able to respond with a question and allow the students to think about their designs. Sometimes they made smart decisions when they reflected on the question asked and sometimes they made design choices I disagreed with. But in the end, the work was their own. Never telling them no you can't do that, but rather allowing them to rethink their choices in design allowed them to collaborate more to come up with a final product they were proud of. 

Honestly, I was amazed. Less than 30 minutes and this kind of design work was produced as a collaborative team of 4 with all students engaged and eager to do more. Can't wait to see what they do once they start putting some content into their sites soon!