We ask students to write and some of them do it simply for the love of it just like some play sports or painting. At some point though, doing work for the sake of work just doesn’t cut it for kids and I can’t blame them at all. Whenever I’m given a task, I’m always thinking why is this important? What is the point of doing this? If I can’t be given an answer or come up with one on my own, then I’m less likely to put forth my best effort. It’s the same for my kids.
I’ve been really trying to give my students work a voice that will be heard since I moved into teaching at the junior years level last year. It’s not enough to have their voice out there on the internet somewhere waiting to be heard but someone ACTUALLY needs to listen/read/experience what my students have to say.
Celebrating Published Work
One of the first things I did was make sure that when we completed a writing unit with published work that their work was really celebrated. This meant that it needed to be shared in a way that would make the students feel proud of what they had accomplished. Depending on the unit, we would find different audiences to share our work with. Sometimes that would be other classes, our parents or even each other. It was no longer just a type it up and hand it in and never be heard of again. My students are excited to share with others their work after going through the writing process and like the instant feedback and gratification from sharing with people they know in a face to face context. What I love even more about this is that not only do my students share their published work but they now share their process of getting to the product. As the ‘process’ of doing something has become more important than the ‘product’ in my class, I love that they enjoy sharing the experience of getting to the end rather than just being finished.
Using Google Documents to Comment and Make Suggestions
As a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school, we are very fortunate to be able to use the various Google Apps to enhance the classroom experience for our students. One of my favourite aspects of the applications is being able to use the comment or suggesting feature of Google Docs and Presentation with my students. I have the ability to access any of the documents my students are working on and give them timely feedback on their work. My students know that I’m reading their work and creates a lot more dialogue about their work and thinking as we go. I also love that documents can be shared with other students so they can do this as well. Often it happens without me knowing when a student stands up and starts asking another student across the room what he meant by this comment on his work. This idea that ‘we’ is better than just ‘me’ in our writing process allows them to have an authentic audience throughout their writing journey as well.
Weekly Reflections For Our Website
At the beginning of the year when our new class website was unveiled to my students, they took ownership of the visual appeal to it but also wanted to make sure their parents could see what they were thinking and feeling throughout the week. As a class, they decided to create a weekly Google Presentation where each student was able to design a slide (or more) with whatever graphics they wanted to and reflect on their week in any way they chose too. Many chose visuals to express themselves as a component of it but most of them wrote whatever they were feeling throughout the week. Knowing that someone would be reading their reflections each week meant that it gave them a purpose to write. This was a complete student-led initiative and is completely optional for my students to do each week. Most weeks at least 80% of my class completes it depending on how much other homework they have, etc. But they do it because they want to write and create and because they want their parents to share their experience in the classroom. This is the culture of sharing THEY have created in our class community.
This is one of my favourite parts of my class. I absolutely love using Google Sites for our e-portfolios. It allows my students to share and reflect on their work. We share them within our class and occasionally with other classes as well but the biggest success has been using them to create powerful school-home relationships. At the end of every 6 week unit of inquiry, my students share their eportfolio with their parents at home and have a discussion about their accomplishments over the course of the unit. The students know that they have wiggle room within those 6 weeks to get their e-portfolios where they want them to be but know that by the end, they will be sharing them. Knowing the audience will be there has significantly increased the quality of e-portfolios since I first started doing them. The parents are not in the dark about their child’s learning and the dialogue continues to develop with the learning at home and not just in the classroom. Parents comment on their work within the e-portfolio as well. Because of this, the student has their teacher, peers, parents, and self all reflecting and commenting on their e-portfolios - quite a powerful audience.
Gmail Home Writing Program
Each week every student in my class writes me an email. They can choose from a list or just write about whatever they want. Every Monday I send them back a personal email. The students clearly know someone is reading their writing and responding to them in a timely fashion.
The more meaningful we can create the learning we have in the classroom, the more students will learn and want to share. The more students share their work with an audience that matters to them, the more pride they take in doing their work. Students want to know what they say matters - foster a community where it can and does.
At the end of last year, I was asked to work with another colleague from the East Campus and an early years teacher on a new website design for classroom teachers by our education technology department. Little did I know at the time how this would have the impact that it did.
Off we went in a Google Document writing about what was working, what went well and what could be changed. The ability to collaborate across the city without having to meet in person constantly really allowed us to maximize our time and focus on the task at hand. It was very easy to see trends across and within campus but also places where what we wanted as teachers were different.
While my opinion of what I wanted to see in a website was able to shared, I felt that my site impacted a lot more people than just me. It was important that I asked others who would be using the site for their thoughts as well. I created a Google Form and sent it to both the parents and students from my class to get their feedback. Ultimately, everyone said it was most important for it to be simple, user-friendly and updated regularly. There were things like a calendar tab that parents didn't use but yet knowing the dates of events was still important. My students felt the class resource section was the best part of their site so they could refer to it often. This information became very valuable in tweaking the sites as we progressed.
Our team of three decided to sit down and draw up what we felt would be the best design and easiest for parents, students and teachers. We decided to keep the tabs to a minimum and focus on teachers regularly doing a few things really well than many things on a site in a mediocre manner.
We met with the education technology team who would bring it to life. Of course there were a few things that weren't possible but for the most part, the design became what we wanted. The layout started to take form. We focused on having pages for home, important information, media, classroom resources and homework. My favourite part is and has always been the classroom resource section as it provides students with the support they need both in and out of the classroom in a fun and enjoyable way.
It's hard to find a one fit model to meet the needs of all teachers, students and parents. However, providing a framework of expectations allows teachers to know what to focus on and then those teachers who want to adapt to fit their needs can do so. Just like we can't teach every child the same, we can't expect every teacher to use the same template in the same way. But it is a starting point which allows for consistency and helps those that are not sure where to begin.
I was asked to take on the role of a 'trainer' to help my fellow colleagues build their class websites from the template we created. First of all, this terrified me. Having never been in the trainer position before, I wasn't sure how I would be teaching adults, specifically ones I know, respect and work with on a daily basis. Then of course I wasn't sure how people would even respond to our new design and having to relearn a way of doing something they were already doing.
I spent hours learning the ins and outs of the website and creating my own Google Site from our template to ensure I understood how and why things work. It was important that I felt comfortable working within the template provided so that I could communicate to others how to successfully build from the template and help them problem solve when necessary. One of the biggest things I was able to do was to tweak the template as I went so that all teachers didn't have to redo the little formatting changes I found along the way.
The one thing that began to fascinate me as I built my own site was coding. Never before had I really understood the need to code. I simply thought it was something that more 'techy' people than myself used and understood. And yet, there I was trying to change code to make table properties disappear or centre objects, embed gadgets or adding in other features. I became fascinated on how the slightest modification to the coding could make the biggest change to a site. I found ways to do things that I was told weren't possible with some research and determination and was able to tweak my site to make it more functional for myself. It made sense to me why some people can spend hours coding, creating and problem solving.
Then it was time for the teachers. A little nervous and lack of sleep (due to nerves) didn't seem to bother me as the first group of teachers joined me for the 'beginner' session. We were able to get them set up using the template and changing the email, editing site layouts, creating their homepage and learning how to add links, images and videos. With patience, a smile and an open forum to ask any questions, together we began building sites for our new classes. I knew that if I could remain positive and calm that my target audience would have a better chance of reciprocating it. I was amazed how the whole session seemed to flow and how teachers were helping teachers next to them. A sigh of relief came over me when the last teacher had left that night knowing that I had succeeded in helping move teachers forward in this process.
The 'advanced' group of teachers was even easier than the first training session as many were familiar with site building. Many similar questions arose as we constructed the sites again from our templates but I was more relaxed this time round and even learned some neat ideas from my colleagues. There was sharing of what had been used successfully in the past in an informal manner within the table groups. That's the beauty of working in a collaborative environment - you don't always have to know all the answers but you need to be open and willing to listen to the ideas around you.
As we went on to the third group with our 'specialist' training session, it became apparent that some individual specialist teachers required different needs than others. Here lies the beauty of flexibility. We were able to help them adapt to their needs while still maintaining the basic outline of expectations and maintaining consistency between sites. Their site template was quite different than their previous one and therefore more support was going to be needed moving forward. But again, overall the positive attitude towards the sites really helped make it a good session for teachers to learn.
I felt overall it went relatively smoothly. There are always things that could be improved upon in the future both on the sites and training but feel a bit more confident taking on other challenges in similar roles in the future. It is a starting point but will continue to be a process. No one was really frustrated with the technology or gave up. Everyone was positive about creating their sites. One of the biggest goals of leading the training was showing people how to do it for themselves and not 'doing' it for them. It's important that teachers (and students) are doing it step by step by themselves and 'the trainer' only guides and supports them through the process. In other words, the only person who touches the computer is the person that owns it. It's one of the biggest things I've learned by watching others lead training sessions about technology and one of the best ways to empower others.
Standing up in front of your colleagues to speak has never been an easy thing for me but I appreciate how supportive and receptive they were to what I had to share. I'm also really appreciative of having a school that is willing to put their faith in me for a project such as this and allowing me such opportunities. At the end of the day, it really is a team effort within a school and we are all there to support each other for the betterment of our students.
Finally, done (ish). Or so I thought. In my mind, my website was ready to show my students and we could begin using it as a resource for learning and sharing within our classroom and with the greater community.
We have been studying communication for the past week so I did a lesson about how visuals, colours and logos can communicate certain ideas and feelings. I then showed my students our new site and said, "What do you think?" Their reaction - it was good but parts of it were boring because it didn't show them as a class. Secretly as a teacher I was thrilled about this response and had even hoped for it. So I simply asked, "What do you like? What do you want to change?" and that is when the real magic began.
My students told me that this website should have more of 'them' throughout it. So they split into teams and each took on a part of the website. A few students started to create a new banner for the class site. It was important to them that they identified us as 5EM and include our school crest. This was who they were and conveying that on the homepage was important to them.
Also on the homepage, they wanted to have a class picture. So of course what else would we be but have a class photo shoot? It was great to see their personalities shine.
One of the best things I felt they did was create an introduction video for our homepage using iPods to record the video and iMovie to create the video. The video was inclusive of every student where each student said hello. The team in charge of the video wanted to celebrate the different languages spoken within our class. Any student who could speak another language said hello in their language. I felt that showed the diversity of our class and our identity as a real community coming together from various backgrounds. As part of this video, another team created an original piece of music using GarageBand. The students tried to included different instruments and think about what message the music could convey. Together, the two groups merged their products and the music was added to their iMovie project.
We used a number of pictures the students had taken on their digital scavenger hunt the week before to be part of the banners on each of the other pages. They wanted to see their faces on every page and I couldn't agree more! I love having the students be the photographer in my class and seeing the class through their eyes.
There is a section where I(the teacher) am supposed to update my students' parents on what is happening in our class and what is coming up next. I told my students this spot should probably stay. But of course, my students asked where they could share their thoughts of the week. Good question! So I threw it back at them - How did they want to share with their parents and friends? The word collaboration was key to them - everyone needed access to it and everyone needed to be able to help each other easily within it. A Google Document was one option but it would be a little messy some students thought. So another student suggested Google Presentation. Bingo! The solution to our problem. The students asked that I create a template where each student got 1 slide to decorate, create and comment on. This is how the weekly 5EM Files was born. It is now going to be an optional activity for the students that can be done as part of their weekly homework or if they finish their work and have some free time. All of this was their idea and it was a little shocking they all agreed to doing more work. Who would've thought that something that was dreamed up by my students late Thursday afternoon would blossom into a full class participation activity by Friday afternoon? Is it perfect? No. Is the spelling all correct? No. Is the grammar all correct? No. Punctuation? No. BUT... those are conversations that can be had in the future. Those are conversations that students can have with each other. Those are conversations that can foster teamwork and further collaboration in the future. Students will be able to learn the need for peer review before publishing a piece of work. It is more about the process than the product in my classroom.
The final piece of the students took ownership over when the icons that linked students to the different resource page. All of the icons originally looked like the PYP UOI icon below until my students said they wanted to make their own. In design teams again, they decided what image could convey the specific subject. Using iPods, they took the photos and then imported to their Macbooks. In Preview, the students cropped the images to become circle images and I was able to add them to our sites. They each link to a separate page full of different resources for that subject.
I love that my class was so engaged in this process and focused on making what they wanted a reality. Our website is now a place that is just as much theirs as mine. They are proud of the work they created and are excited to bring their parents to the site over the weekend. What I am most proud of my class for is not just creating their website, rather, working together as a class community in an inclusive manner to create something that they feel they have ownership of, that they were able to use their skills and prior knowledge in a meaningful way and that they realised that everyone in our class has something to offer.