I have been motivated since my first big open ended project this year to not limit the learning in my science classroom. The project I speak of was the “Grand Portage” project in December. The rubric was very basic and integrated our learning during the year with technology. In addition, I wanted to cross the curriculums of math and social studies.
The math challenge was clear and present, as we were asking students to build the formula to calculate speed. The problem is that not all math students had mastered that skill yet, with many not being exposed to this skill until spring of the school year. Still this was connected to one of our standards and an important skill for their science classes yet to come. It wasn’t uncommon to see those cross-eyed looks of confusion showing they’re not there yet.
In social studies the students were studying the fur trade in Minnesota. So my idea was to connect all three subjects that hopefully supported each other and ultimately met my project standard. Students would plan a trip from our school to a historical fur trade location, traveling in 2014. Their return trip would be using the travel means of fur traders in the 1800’s. We used Google My Maps to use different layers and routes for both legs of their trip. Students were free to select their own route and we had some very interesting ways to get there.
The maps were the fun part, then came the meat of the project. For each leg the project required students to account for miles, total time including stops, moving time, average and moving speed. These equations made me uneasy and nervous, for the difficulty was much greater than we had done with basic labs to date. Finally they had to present their trip to the class. I was really letting go of my traditional learning box and handing the steering wheel over to the students.
Let me clearly state this method was stepping way outside of my comfort zone. I was in year 4 of teaching this part of the chapter and had my canned lesson ready. As mentioned in an earlier blog, I was inspired by Jenny Magiera’s TEDx BurnsvilleEd talk on “Power of the Pupil”. If you have yet to view, it is well worth your time to watch. So here I was letting go, guiding the learning instead of thinking I was controlling it. A leap of faith for this educator, whom my friends sometimes refer to as Sheldon Cooper.
During the work time, technology was the tool of collaboration. This wasn’t a surprise, for I had seen examples of sharing the learning via technology many times. This time technology was the motivation to not limit their project based upon their math or social studies challenges a student may have experienced in the past. There were no limits on the learning for this project.
The presentations showed students doing successful math equations that earlier were quite foggy and far from clear. Even when their calculations weren’t accurate, in most cases the student brought it to my attention. Then asking, “can I fix this before your grade it?” Now that was learning that I wasn’t expecting and it was quite refreshing. Presentation after presentation exceeded my expectations and many times the student’s, with some presentations off the chart amazing. I learned so many new, slick things about Google My Maps from this project.
Were there students that came up short … for sure. The number was much less than a regular lesson of this size. Most of those students not getting it the first time had a solution before I broached the question of fixing. However, I had goosebumps from many presentations. Those students hit nothing short of a home run and could recognize their accomplishment. They were very proud of their work and well, they should be.
My prior practice learning box had a clear expected outcome and boundaries to stay within. The problem was my boundaries limited the learning to the standard I was seeking. Yes, we met the standard, but why limit the learning. My traditional model kept control and order, while keeping the project within my learning box. It was clear, clean and manageable for this teacher of 21 years. However, it”s their learning that’s important.
Digital Citizenship is at the top of the school technology buzz words list. Most can’t argue the importance, however few can define and even fewer do much with teaching a skill for safe school usage. Parents and teachers see the landscape changing, with a definite need to empower our children with safe tools of technology. Then all gets a bit gray, with some concerned about not doing enough and others believing that we are introducing a scary world to students. Both views may be accurate, but it doesn't mean we ignore the value of educating the power of the web.
My approach has changed in the last couple years. I always try to build a classroom learning community, where we support and lookout for each other. Students are encouraged to control themselves, that’s one person they can control, to make the choice that fits the situation. That sounds all good in a perfect classroom to the critics, but I am seeing progress. I’m trying to find a balance between the direct delivery instruction that must happen and sharing the learning through technology. No more talking or messing around, its time to start being proactive with education and using the internet.
I started my key phrase of our Community Firewall upon our return from winter break. In my world, 6th graders seem to come to the new year after their break with new devices as gifts. New smartphones and tablets are the norm. What I find interesting is how much safe use emphasis is put on the students when school kicks off in August, yet very little discussion of safe use use after Christmas. It almost feels like; “since we talked about it already, we are fine”. They are middle school students and for whatever reason adults forget what they were like back then. Now put a powerful piece of technology front and center for kids to drive.
The Community Firewall approach has two layer. The most obvious is promoting appropriate technology use. Students are encouraged to make the right choice online, just like they have been asked to be a good school citizen. However, in a community we support and look out for each other. If a student is doing what they are suppose to be doing, but their neighbor isn't, in regards to technology, tap that classmate in a caring manner to help redirect. If a student doesn't feel comfortable doing that, then I encourage them to tell me.
Well we are into the 2nd school week since winter break and I am seeing progress. Just today I heard three students remind a neighbor what the classroom task was, as there were clearly some digital distractions in play. What was amazing to me is little to no push back from the technology wanderer. There is almost a look of relief, being reminded by a fellow classmate and not the teachers.
Our Community Firewall aligns nicely with our districts digital citizenship awareness month of January. I applaud our school leaders being proactive like this in the middle of the school year. Like anything the school district rolls out there is always some staff push back, putting more on our plates. New technology discussion needs to happen, just like reinforcing those school soft skills that are so important to academic success.
The early reviews are good for empowering students to own their web, use it wisely and look out for each other. I really appreciate teaching 6th graders and their first year in middle school. If we do this job right, the class of 2021 will carry their education internet to graduation where technology is their life tool. Building a good Community Firewall habit is a must, for this generation can and will embrace it.