Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What does family mean to you? What does it mean to your students?

Families depend on each other a lot. They show each other how to handle problems and they show support to each other when help is needed. They show how to set goals and they care for one another...
"A day my sisters had to depend on me was on Mother's Day a couple years ago." (read more)
" The person I really depend on is my brother. I just want him to be around when I need him. My mom I really don’t depend on because I know she is going to be here regardless. But my brother…I depend on him because he needs to be here when something happens. I mean my mom can protect me but not like my brothers can or dad." (read more)
"One time that my family depended on me was when my grandfather was very sick because of his diabetes." (read more)
Above are three responses from students about what family means to them. Their Language Arts teacher provided the opening sentences but then the students took it from there. They wrote about times they helped their families, times their families helped them and times their families let them down. Each essay told a new story and shed new light on the nature of families. But the essay also shared commonalities: how connected we are with our families, how our actions impact on families and how our families' action impact us. Read more of the students essays here.

But what we want to know now is:

How similar are families around the world?

We have issued ourselves a challenge. Can we find students from 10 different countries to share with us what their families mean to them? By May 1st?
Will your classroom be one of them?

We would love that! If you are interested, leave me a comment here, contact me on Twitter @edtechdunny, or just go ahead and join our wiki. We can send you more information about how to add your essays to our wiki. But basically, if you can type up your essays, we can add them to our site! Let's give our students a chance to learn about families everywhere and to see a world bigger than their own.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dude, Can You Please Edit?

The last two years I have been lucky enough to work with a group of middle school Language Arts teachers that were interested in implementing a Digital Reading Writing Workshop in their classrooms. Inspired by Troy Hicks'  The Digital Writing Workshop, we met regularly and compared notes about how best to incorporate some of the ideas presented in the book into our classrooms.

One of the brilliant ideas that came out of these early morning gatherings was to use the wiki tool in Blackboard as a digital writing portfolio. This was one of those ideas that was so good, I was mad I hadn't thought of it! This colleague of mine, Teacher Wiki, set up individual wikis within her Blackboard courses for each student. Each student would then create a new page of the wiki for each new writing piece. That meant that each time they revised that page of their wiki, all revisions were saved. Furthermore, because the wikis were all public, all students in the class could read each other's writing and leave specific feedback about each piece. Further, furthermore, students could get ideas for their own writing based on what they read in each other's wikis. A simple and elegant way to help students track their own progress, publish their work for feedback and view examples from their classmates of great writing.

So, as you can tell, I was excited about the use of this tool to truly build a digital writing workshop. But what was even more exciting was the student writing and interactions that came out of this practice.

Teacher Wiki had one student who would type a few sentences and declare himself done. Using all her Teacher College Writing tricks, Teacher Wiki would cajole and needle and work hard to get the student to write more. However, Student Y would just not elaborate or even re-read what he had written. That is until, he got some feedback from his peers.

Dude, Can You Please Edit?

This was shouted across the room at him in a none-too-patient voice from a friend across the room. It was clear that when Student X went to give reluctant writer Student Y some feedback in his wiki, the piece was filled with too many errors. It was after this across-the-room exchange that reluctant writer Student Y quietly asked Teacher Wiki where the spell check function was in the wiki tool. Quietly, surreptitiously, reluctant writer Student Y went back and began to revise and edit his piece. That quick exchange with his peer made more of an impression on him than repeated attempts by his teacher. And I question whether or not the scenario would have unfolded the same way if the students had just exchanged papers. Instead, this is a perfect example of what can happen when students are encouraged to write from the beginning in a digital format.  Editing and revising is so much easier in the digital format but, more importantly, when adolescents get feedback from their peers, they are much more interested in revising than when they get the same feedback from their teacher.

Now, of course, Teacher Wiki works hard on teaching students how to give appropriate and helpful feedback to the writer. (I don't think "Dude, can you please edit" was one of her model examples). She gives students specific ideas about how to respond to other students' writing and highlights model responses. As the school year goes on, students get better and better at giving each other feedback. While they still often slip into casual chat talk, they do give advice about word choice and provide suggestions for adding detail.

When I interviewed students at the end of last year, one students was able to tell me both how he got his writing topic idea from reading other students' wikis ("When I read how that student wrote about breaking a vase, I remembered the time I broke a window."), and how he improved the piece based on feedback from a classmate ("They suggested I use the word 'shattered' when I described the window breaking. I had just said 'broke.'") This was great testimony to the importance of letting students read each other's work in a friendly and open way.

Example of a student adding transitions to her writing
The ability to track all the revisions on a writing piece, have students giving and recieving feedback from each other and creating a space for students to collect more ideas about what and how to write has made using the wiki tool in Blackboard a huge success for these Language Arts students. As more and more teachers experiment with this format, students will benefit. They will grow as writers and as learners.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

We finally got to start using Quest Atlantis last week! If you have never heard of Quest Atlantis before, it is an immersive learning game. Students have avatars and enter a 3D world where they are assigned missions and quests. The missions and quests all are connected to real-world problems and have engaging story lines. Students must navigate the 3D world to find information and clues to solve a problem. Along the way they meet virtual characters who guide the students and provide information. There is also the opportunity to interact with the avatars of students from other schools. The basis of Quest Atlantis is the concept of transformative play. As the Quest Atlantis website explains:
Students who play transformationally become protagonists who use the knowledge, skills, and concepts of the educational content to first make sense of a situation and then make choices that actually transform the play space and the player.
So, I was curious, how would my students react to this 3D space? Would they experience tranformational play? Would they enjoy exploring the virtual world more than they enjoying learning in a traditional classroom?

Honestly, I wasn't sure I would ever find out. The first hurdle to tackle was getting permission slips signed. Because Quest Atlantis is funded by Indiana University and used for research about emerging technologies and learning, students were required to have parental approval before logging into the Quest Atlantis world. Unfortunately, asking parents to sign a permission slip for a class assignment was not a top priority for these students. After a little cajoling from me and some tough talk from their principal, we finally had all the permission slips in. Whew, step one complete.

The first day playing went, well, great. The students were excited. They were laughing and talking and fully engaged for the 30 minutes we let them play. It was fascinating to watch their personalities emerge online. Some went right to finding out their mission and were running off here and there without really absorbing their task or the information given them. Others spent a tremendous amount of time getting their avatar just right. Still others tested the limits of the world and immediately dove off cliffs, swam in the water and tried to get into places they shouldn't. It was all behavior I would completely expect when giving adolescents a new toy. They were experimenting: some with recklessness, some with caution and some just took it as it came.

Day two we began by showing students how to know where in the 3D world they were. Quest Atlantis uses North, South, East, and West indicators for students to know where they currently are and to locate the places they needed to get to. I was pleased that students got the directional concepts but was fascinated to watch them play and realize that they didn't really understand how to apply these concepts. Since we were playing during their social studies class time, I loved that they were absorbing directionality in a whole new way and actually applying it in a way that was meaningful to them.

My other take-away from day two was that my students need help following directions! I guess I always knew that but assumed that they were having trouble following directions because they didn't really care about the assignments or weren't listening to the directions the first time. But watching them play Quest Atlantis, I realized they actually needed help reading carefully and doing tasks in the order assigned to them. Since many of my students have struggled to achieve in traditional schools, this observation wasn't a shocker, but it was still useful to observe it in the virtual world.

The next step with Quest Atlantis will be for the students to tackle content-related missions in the 3D world. Until then I'll be excited about the following things:

  • The school administrator commented that she'd never seen Student X talk so much as she did when playing  Quest Atlantis that first day
  • A student that was going to be absent for Day Two asked if she could play the game at home. (Yes!)

If playing Quest Atlantis means students are excited to learn and want to work on school work outside of school, I'm ready for more!