I have to say this was one of the most unsuspected and unplanned learning engagement I have done with my students, but was definitely was one of the most fun ones. Last week, my students were watching a few videos about buildings, structures and environmental factors architects needed to consider when planning and building in various locations around the world. One of the videos featured Hurricane Sandy and showed the effects it had on various buildings. One of my kiddos asked, “What makes a building ‘hurricane proof’? What makes a building not get destroyed in a hurricane?” Of course, when a student has an inquiry, we usually go about investigating so this was just another one of those days. At that point it was made known, the hurricane would be here in 3 days.
First the students broke into teams of 5. I am still amazed at how well my 9-year-olds can make groups. Ever since our design thinking and inventions unit at the start of the year, they see the value in creating diverse groups. WIthout teacher support, they make sure there is varying abilities, boys and girls, and unique perspectives. They choose not to work with their best friends and understand that by making these decisions they can make the best teams that can solve any problems.
Once the teams were established, they started to do their research. They brainstormed questions that would be necessary for the investigation such as what happens during a hurricane, what materials are best for structures in hurricanes, etc. and documented them in a shared Google Doc. From there, they began their research. Each student in the group was responsible for different questions as well as keeping a list of references they used to solve their answers. Some groups even colour coded who did what to help them self-monitor if they were each contributing equally to the gathering of research notes.
From there, they pulled the keywords out from their research that would need to be included in their design before creating blueprints that they drew by hand. One group even drew their building from 5 perspectives so they could have a well thought out plan. When they had finished their sketch, they had to meet with me briefly to explain some of their design decisions in the sketch. I was amazed by the thought and detail they went into for their structures. One group thought about being inspired by the Gherkin with a rounded building so the wind would curve around it, Another group had the building on stilts in case there was flooding. The final group created a basement for safety with reinforced walls in the basement with lining to prevent water from seeping in. There were inclined planes for water to run away from the building, multiple exits for if there was something blocking it and a variety of different materials used that they felt would be best to minimize damage.
Then they got to the building process. The students were allowed to use any materials they wanted to construct their buildings. We used recycled materials primarily as well as other resources that were found around the classroom. I loved watching them as they talked through their disagreements in designs, working collaboratively and inclusive of all group members.
Finally, it was hurricane day. I walked into class still unsure of how it was going to play out and no real plan on how to make it happen but sometimes creativity strikes and you roll with it. We had a video with sound effects on the projector as a visual and hurricane sirens as a warning for the members of the community. It was time to see if these buildings would hold. Every student played a role in creating the hurricane. Some students were the storm chasers who used iPods to video document what was happening and finding different angles to capture the storm. Other students were the fierce winds with large sheets of cardboard or boards used to create the wind. Finally, we had students who were the rainstorm who would toss water at the buildings. Hurricane Mac was intense. As the hurricane progressed, debris (in the form of pencil crayons) began to be thrown about and hitting the buildings.
When the storm had passed, we looked at our buildings to see how they had stood up against the storm. Luckily they were all pretty much intact. We had a lot of discussion about why some were better than others, how some materials had been more durable than others, etc. First the teams debriefed individually and then they shared with the whole class. To wrap it up, the students created a written report about the experience from beginning to end including all of their reflections, photographs and experiences.
It was the absolute best way to begin our Monday morning (even with the bit of mess we created). The experience brought about so many questions and inquiries. The students worked collaboratively to investigate and create an experience that was memorable. I honestly think they are still shocked of how we did the simulation in the end. But the smiles on their faces was completely worth every second.
Sometimes teaching can’t be all planned out. Sometimes you just have to jump into the storm, get a little bit messy and be ready for whatever is thrown your way.
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 https://color.adobe.com and http://paletton.com 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 https://pixlr.com/ 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.
My students were beyond thrilled when I told them they could create online sites for our entire unit of inquiry this time around. After discussing our central idea, key concepts and transdisciplinary skills to give my students a general overview of what the unit of inquiry we were supposed to be learning about was supposed to be studying, I did the unthinkable for most students.
I gave the students a document with what would be on their report card for Unit 4...word for word. To the shock and amazement of my students, I pushed it even further. I told them they would be marking themselves and those would be the marks they get on their report card for the most part. Unless I saw something that was different then they did, I would use what they had given themselves. I don't know if I've ever seen my students so speechless. I've had them self-evaluate before but knowing they were completely in the driver's seat wasn't what they were used to.
I thought it was only fair they knew what they had to be 'assessed' on if they were creating the course. In order for them to succeed, they needed to be able to extract the big ideas or concepts that they would need to cover in their course. Essentially these would create their different lessons/sessions/levels. Each group was given a piece of chart paper and asked to think about what those big concepts might be. I suggested they read through their lines of inquiry, central idea and assessment sheet again to figure out what they should be focusing on. They could be as big or small as they felt necessary to be considered it's own lesson.
From there, we discussed as a class some of the bigger ones that popped out frequently on the different pages. We also discussed that some topics could be combined to create one lesson with more detail. After that discussion, students were given time to discuss which lessons they wanted as part of their course and circled them.
After that it was important for the students to order the lessons in a way that made logical sense. As a class, we discussed how you can't have a lesson about something more specific if you haven't had a general overview and that you had to be strategic in the way your order your course.
Whenever students take notes for research, I let them do it whichever way makes the most sense to them. This time around I wanted to add another strategy to their repertoire that they could choose from. In a Google Document, the student would make a table with the first row being the different lessons by the concept in the correct order from left to right. Then in the columns underneath each level, students could write down all of the questions they think they might need to find out to be successful. It was important to discuss with the students that they could come back to this list and add more questions to the chart at any time. Sometimes what you are reading while researching prompts you for another question and the students are encouraged to include it in the document. This method of recording information is not fixed and is able to be changed and modified at any time.
I love mixing it up in the classroom (and taking it outside of it too). No day of learning should ever be the same - it's one of the great things about teaching. Each time we begin a new unit, we try to tackle it from a new approach.
For our new ecosystems unit, we wanted to get our students thinking about the topic in an active way. The game survival is a fun and energetic game that instantly gets the students thinking about food webs, energy sources and strategising to survive.
The game is simple - stay alive. Each student is given a card to represent a different part of the food chain. They are herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, human or disease. The most powerful is the disease who can attack any of the players below, humans can eat omnivore, carnivores, herbivores and so forth down the food chain. There are a limited number of players who begin as disease and human.
Players will run around the game space. In our case, we used the basketball court and set up various obstacles and hiding places around it. Energy and food cards were hidden around the playing field that players could collect. If someone from higher up on the food chain catches you, you must give them one of your energy or food cards. If you have no energy or food cards left, you are out of the game.
This activity prompted a lot of great discussion following the game about what ecosystems actually are and how they work. We discussed why it was more difficult for some to stay alive compared to other players. In addition, the students generated some excellent ideas for how to change the game as well such as:
- having an antidote for the disease so you can come back alive/ regain energy cards
- adding additional players at any level to create an imbalance in the ecosystem
- herbivores that are poisonous as a way of self-defence
- changing the actual ecosystem the game was played in
- students taking on specific animals within the game
We will play this game a few additional times throughout our unit using variations and hope to incorporate other active games to engage our learners.
A couple of weeks ago a group of 5 girls in my class were outside drawing at lunch. I wandered over to them to see what they were up to. "Ms. Mac, we are drawing unipigs and we want to have a unipig day!" Puzzled on what a unipig was, I inquired further - a pig and a unicorn all in one. I asked the girls if this 'day' was going to happen at home or at school.
"Can it happen at school?" was what I heard in response with the 5 innocent faces looking back at me. For a moment I paused and pondered before replying with, "Sure...But there has to be an educational component to it." From there it just took off!
That night the girls went home and by 5pm, they were on a Google presentation collaborating, commenting and coming up with how they were going to make this day happen. Within 30 minutes, they had already planned 2 lessons and created a Google presentation to use for their lesson. The document was shared with me by the time I got home from work and I sat there amazed at what had just happened.
The next day the first question I got from them was when was this going to happen. Putting the breaks on for just a second, I suggested that we meet to go over what they had planned and then we could discuss a date. At the break, we gathered in the conference room the 5 of them on one side me the other and they began talking me through their plans.
First up was a math lesson. They were going to create a menu of all the different cupcakes, cakes and beverages offered at the Decimal Dessert. Students would solve problems based on the open and closed word problem questions the girls had come up with. For the second lesson, the girls were going to have everyone design a cupcake in their writing books. Then, everyone would have to write a story incorporating the cupcake with the focus on developing their senses with taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. It sounded reasonable to me and we planned for the following Wednesday to be the day.
The excitement continued to build as the girls created more drawing for the day and modified their menu up until the last moment.
On the day, it was a very different experience for me as I stepped into the student role and actually did their lessons. I was incredibly proud of the girls and the way they conducted the lesson from start to finish. When students' hands went up, they were right there for support and even marked as they went. I loved that one when one student raised his hand and said excuse me and our PYP coordinator went to see if he could help, the student said he was actually wanting to ask the 'teachers' a question which gave me a good chuckle.
The biggest challenge for the girls was their excitement. They were all so excited by the event that they sometimes would talk over each other when giving the lesson. But how can you fault enthusiasm really?
It was a very reflective experience for me as well. As I did the lessons as a student, it reminded me of the little things that are helpful for the student to understand the instructions and tasks better. It was also interesting to see the girls modelling what I would normally do as well - the way they got the classes' attention, how they addressed students, approaches to questions. I saw the classroom truly through the eyes of my students.
Beyond this afternoon, I have had more students wanting to take risks and share. Two days after, I had a boy come in with a presentation about some action outside of the classroom that he created and wanted to share and I received an email from another student asking if she could present something she designed on the weekend. Perhaps sometimes it just takes one small step sideways to begin leaping forward.
I am glad I let go of the class for the afternoon and handed it over to the girls. It meant so much to them and they were so proud of what they accomplished individually and together. They developed their presentation skills, reflected on their work, communicated their ideas to others and challenged their peers academically. And the fact the girls also organised to each bring a few cupcakes in for the celebration to end the lesson was just the icing on the cake.