Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

Can Six-Year-Olds Really Demonstrate Their Learning?

This article was originally published on the Getting Smart blog.

This week we finished up another one of our project based learning (PBL) or inquiry-based units in my first grade classroom. It had the grand title of rules, relationships and responsibilities.

Why I Let Students Take the Lead in Learning Demonstration

A grade one student's poster showing what he has learned in our PBL unit.At the end of each of our units, I have the students create an artifactthat can be posted on their blog to show what each of them has learned about our topic of study. I have never been a big supporter of “tests”, especially in first grade, where the students are usually much more comfortable showing learning in a verbal way rather than a written one. As an alternative, I ask the students to create something—a video, a podcast, a drawing—whatever works for that child to best show his learning.

Even as young as six years old, students begin to realize that they are stronger in some areas than others. If I truly want to know what a student knows about a social studies topic, asking for a written paragraph from all of them does not make sense. Only those who are strong writers will do well. The others don’t really have a chance to effectively show me what they know.

Some students do like to write. For them, writing is a successful way to show what they know. Some students can most effectively show their learning in a drawing. For others, a podcast or video is a better choice.

For these reasons, I always let the students chose the way they present their learning. When I first began using PBL in my classroom, I was concerned that the students might only choose their favorite technology for each project we did, without giving thought to how they could truly show their learning in a meaningful way. That has not proved to be the case.

Setting Clear Expectations & Guidelines Promotes Success

Grade one students creating posters for their PBL projectBefore we began working, we talked about the options that might work well for archiving learning in this unit. Some of the ideas we came up with together included drawing and labeling pictures (digital or with markers, crayons or pastels), writing, making posters, making screencasts, using the Livescribe pen, making videos or making podcasts. I was open to any suggestions that would give the students a chance to clearly articulate what they knew.

We also discussed what needed to be included to make a good project. My school uses four levels of achievement for young students: Limited, Adequate, Meeting and Excellent. We looked at a rubric together so that the students would know exactly what they needed to do to attain each of those levels of achievement. In the past, I have had the students make the rubric with me, but this time I made it ahead of time and asked for their input instead.

Students Exceeded Expectations & Demonstration of Learning

A student-made poster showing his learning from a PBL unit.With the expectations clear in their minds, the students set off to make their projects. The choices that the students made to show their learning surprised me. Three students chose to draw digital pictures. These three students also used Audioboo to make a podcast that explained their pictures and learning. None of the students chose to make a screencast on an iPad or to use the Livescribe Pen. None of the students were interested in writing what they knew. (Since they are just emerging writers, this was probably a good choice for them.)

The rest of the students all chose to make a poster. Perhaps it is hard to resist the lure of the beautiful colours of tagboard we have in the classroom. Many of them had chosen to make a poster at the end of another PBL unit we had done, so perhaps it was familiarity that made this an overwhelming choice. Drawing is a comfortable and age appropriate way for six year olds to explain their learning. It is much more difficult to put details into a digital drawing than it is to a drawing on paper using markers or pastels, so again the students made a choice that worked well for them.

Showcasing Student Works Brings Ownership, Pride and Expression to Classroom Learning

Two students working on their PBL ProjectOnce the students’ posters were complete, we wanted to be able to showcase what the students had done on their blogs, so we made videos of the students explaining what they had chosen to include in their poster. As we recorded their podcasts or videos, the students explained their thinking, and I often asked questions to try to pull out all of the things they knew.

The videos, podcasts and pictures were all uploaded and embedded on the students’ blogs, becoming one more part of each student’s digital portfolio. Their artifact is now visible to their parents, friends and grandparents who might live in a distant city.

The students take great pride in their blogs. They love to show it to anyone who will take the time to look at it with them. The writing and artifacts it contains were created by THEM and show what THEY have learned. A favorite activity is to look at their writing at the beginning of the year and grin as they see the progress they have made. When we are working on something in our classroom, it is common for them to ask “Can we put this on our blogs?” They want to show the world what they can do.

Given the chance, six-year olds can be articulate in explaining their own learning and make appropriate choices to demonstrate what they know. The choices just need to be suitable to their level. For six-year olds, that is often through drawings and oral explanations. Clearly my previous concerns about the students not making good choices were misplaced.

BYOD For Six-Year-Olds

I have long been fascinated with the idea of “bring your own device” (BYOD). Most schools cannot afford to provide laptops, iPads or any other device for every student. Allowing students to bring whatever they have–whether laptop, cellphone or whatever–to school to add to the “connectedness” in the classroom is something I’ve supported.  I’ve just never done it in my grade one classroom.

My students do not have laptops. They don’t have cell phones or iPads. But they do have Nintendo DS (well, most of them do).  I have toyed with the idea of having a BYOD day. Last year I even contacted the parents to say “would this be possible”?  No one responded, so I took this to mean they said “no”.

Bringing Our Games to School

In hindsight, I’m not sure that it did mean “no”. This year, as we began our relationships, rules and responsibilities unit using gaming, I decided to give it another try.  I really wanted the students to be able to share the games they loved so well with their classmates. This time, I first talked to the students. Would they like to bring their DS to school? Yes! (Using their games is something they are passionate about.) What were some rules we should make to ensure that their DS were safe? The students came up with the rules, the chief of which was that they would keep their DS in their backpack while on the bus, while on the playground and while in the classroom until the appropriate time.

I emailed the parents to ask them to send the Nintendo DS with the student’s favourite game to school for “sharing” time.  If the students did not have a DS, I asked them to send any other game that the students enjoyed playing. Those who could not bring a game to show us could simply tell us about a game they liked to play.

About half of the students brought a DS to school on the appointed day. A couple of students forgot and one parent did not want the DS to come to school. Two students brought a different game to show us.

We used the document camera to show the games as the students explained how to play. I was thrilled with the oral language that came from this sharing. Students who are normally very reticent to talk were eloquent in describing their game, whether a DS game or otherwise.

Using PictoChat

One of the interesting features of the DS and the DSi is called PictoChat. PictoChat allows you to chat with other Nintendo DS machines through its own wireless connection. I have a few DS at school, so the students all shared machines, and began sending messages to each other. We have used this feature many times in the past with the DS we have at school, but never before had we had so many devices sending messages at once. There were squeals of delight!

At first, they sent pictures or word messages. Then we practiced spelling some sight words we had been working. We’ve been working on telling and writing math number stories, so later I told some math stories and asked them to write the number story to go with it. The students liked that they could “see everybody’s answer to see if we’re right”. Fun, fun, fun.

Passion and purpose worked hand-in-hand. An unqualified success. And, yes, we’ll do it again.

Making Up the Rules

Using the Nintendo DS

This year, I have been using PBL (passion or project-based learning) in my classroom. Although language arts and math have certainly been involved, I have mainly been using the outcomes of my science, social studies and health curriculum as the focal point of my backwards by design planning.  Instead of focusing on outcomes one at a time, I have grouped them into areas roughly approximating themes.  Some of these themes have outcomes from only one curriculum and some have outcomes from two or even three subject areas.  The overall themes we have completed so far this year have only involved science and health. This means that we have not yet learned any of the social studies outcomes.

Can It Work?

To be honest, I have dreaded the social studies outcomes. Science and health lend themselves easily to PBL in my mind. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it work.

Our next unit or theme is based around relationships, rules and responsibilities. (I didn’t come up with that title myself.) It covers some social studies and some health outcomes. As with all PBL, I want this to be based on what the students are interested in. There really is nothing about the words “relationships”, “rules” and “responsibilities” that has the ability to inspire passion in most six year olds.

Playing Nintendogs

One thing my students ARE passionate about is gaming. They love to play games on the computers in our classroom and an incredible number of them have a Nintendo DS of their own.  I have been looking for a more ways to integrate gaming and into our days—could this be the time?  Gaming certainly involves rules and relationship work is vital to make the six DS machines we have in our classroom work in a class of eighteen children.

I have used the DS in my classroom a variety of ways for several years. I know how to set things up so that our day flows smoothly and successfully with them. Using what I had learned to help was not my purpose this time, though.

Let’s Try It

Without any preamble, I brought out the DS that I have in my classroom and said that we would spend the next period using them to play the game Nintendogs. They all cheered. “Go for it,” I said, and moved aside. They eagerly reached for the games.

What happened next was a study in human nature.

The children who got a DS in their hands eagerly moved to a table and began to use them. A couple of children sat down beside them to watch. Five children all hovered over the shoulder of one child.  Unbeknownst to me, one child had one in his backpack, which he promptly took out and began to use. Several children all clustered around me expectantly.  (Clearly, I was supposed to solve their problem–they didn’t have one to use.)  Their eyes kept darting to the counter where the DS had been, expecting more would appear. Despite the fact that we have used these machines many times this year and they all know exactly how many there are, one child even moved some of the items on the counter to see if more might be hiding behind something.  One student asked if they could use something else—an iPad or a computer. (This is often what happens in our classroom.) I cheerfully told the children that we were using only the DS for this, and moved to another part of the classroom.  I could hear a lot of grumbling and there were some very disappointed faces.

I wanted to be sure to stop what was happening before there were any tears, so after a few minutes I brought them back to our carpet and asked them about what had happened.  We talked about how they had felt and how they could solve the difficulties.

Sharing the Nintendo DS

One of the students suggested that people could share with a partner. They moved around to find a partner and discovered that some students still would not have a DS. Another student suggested having three in a group. They tried it out and decided this was a “fair” way. Some arguing ensued as they all jockeyed to be first to play, and I asked them if they needed some rules. They eagerly agreed. (Being six is all about being fair.) Together they made five rules. (One was that it’s Mrs. Cassidy’s job to decide who is first and to keep track of the time to make it fair.) The rules were all their idea–I only asked questions and wrote them down.

Success At Last

Finally they felt they had it right and went to try their new rules. The classroom was not instantly peaceful, but when we met again at the end of the day, almost everyone was content. They had all had a turn to play Nintendogs and had had fun doing it.

And I think they’re beginning to understand the importance of rules. Maybe using PBL with social studies can work after all.

Construction Day

Some of the Materials for Construction

“It’s construction day!” buzzed the students to each other as they came into my classroom. This day had been eagerly anticipated as the pile of construction materials in our classroom had grown.

This year I have several new curriculum guides. I have divided the outcomes in my health, science and social studies curricula into topics that will (I hope) allow me to pursue project-based learning in inter-disciplinary units.  Two of the outcomes in my new science curriculum  stood by themselves and didn’t really fit with any others. They were:
  • Investigate observable characteristics and uses of natural and constructed objects and materials and
  • Examine methods of altering and combining materials to create objects

Because Christmas was approaching and I wanted to be sure to finish whatever I started before then, I decided to tackle just those two outcomes in a PBL way.

To start the unit, I showed my students three videos that showed people using things in surprising ways to create something different. I showed them a video of sheep being used to make pictures on a hillside, an artist creating Darth Vader with salt and dominos used to create the Mona Lisa. They “oo”-ed and “ah”-ed and were intrigued by the idea of making unexpected things. They all wondered aloud about creating something and wrote it on a card which was placed on our wonder wall.

"For Breathing Underwater"

The next day, I told them it was their turn to try it. They could use anything they found in our classroom to create something.  It was interesting to watch some of the students dive in and begin creating, while others struggled to find an idea. Several tried to make a Mona Lisa. One child used the snap cubes in our classroom to make a transformer that actually transformed from a robot into a flying airbus.

As a class, we made some picture frames out of tongue depressors and puzzle pieces.

And then we began collecting stuff. As the pile grew, so did the anticipation. Finally the day arrived. We talked briefly about the rubric I would be using to evaluate and then they madly dove into constructing.

Some of my Student's Creations

The pile of materials dwindled as the students explored their own ideas.   It was passion-based learning as I always wanted it to be in my classroom.  The students were all engaged. They were all creating something that interested them.

And I had the evidence that two science outcomes were clearly understood by all of the students.

Cakes, Snakes and Boxes: Passion-based Learning

This article was originally posted on the Voices from the Learning Revolution blog of Powerful Learning Practice.  It contains some information that has previously been posted on this blog.  If you are a regular reader of this space, you may want to skip down to the “Showing Their Learning” sub-title.

Making Patterns with Cake

“Puffed wheat, brownie, rice krispie, brownie, puffed wheat, brownie, rice krispie, brownie” chanted one of my students as she explained the pattern she had just made with pieces of cake. We were in the middle of a passion-based learning (PBL) unit themed around patterning. “I wonder if you can make patterns with cake” one of my students had asked? And so we tried it.

I have wondered for a long time how passion and project based learning would change my primary classroom.  I have read with fascination the blogs of teachers who made this shift, but I have yet to find an example of a primary teacher sharing this change. Having an entire class of pre-readers and writers in your classroom alters the playing field for exploring your passions. This year, I decided to find out for myself what the difference would be in my grade one learning space.

Starting Out

Our Wonder Wall and What We Learned Space

I decided to do a patterning unit first, and kicked it off by showing the students an Animoto I had made with copyright-free photos of patterns in the environment.  Frankly, I would do this differently next time. My six-year olds seemed to be intrigued, but were not sure of what their response should be, and it did not elicit the questions I was hoping for. I talked to the students about the expectations of our curriculum. Then, I asked them what they would like to learn about patterns.

The questions came very slowly at first (they had only been in my class a couple of days and we were still getting to know each other), but by the end of our discussion, all of the students had had at least one question. They asked things like “can you make a pattern with squares?”, “how many colours can there be in a pattern?” and “can you make patterns with cake?”

As they formulated their questions, I gave them a card with I wonder… printed on it, and they went to a table to draw a picture of their question. As each picture was finished, I printed the words to end their question for them, and the children trotted off to our Wonder Wall to post them.  The next day, I showed the students where to find information and materials in our classroom and then told them to choose one of their questions from the wall and to use anything we had  to find the answer.

The students worked individually or in a small group with paper and crayons or manipulatives and made patterns, patterns and more patterns. As the students discovered the answers to their questions and dictated them to me, I printed their solutions on a strip of paper for them to copy onto a new card that already had I learned… printed on it.  Then, these cards went onto the What We Learned wall in the classroom.  This process continued throughout our unit.

Stepping Out

Patterning with Empty Paper Boxes

Some questions the students wondered about couldn’t be answered by their working on their own. “I wonder if there are patterns in my basement?” needed some parent support. “I wonder if snakes have patterns?” meant I needed to share an informational picture book with the class. The question above about patterning with cake meant that I had to do some baking.

Some questions, such as patterning with paper boxes, stimulated everyone’s interest. Questions about patterns on grass and ladybugs led to a host of new questions that meant we had to move outside to do some discovery. (And meant that we were also venturing into our science and math studies.) There were some days that had to be more teacher directed. During the unit, we made Skype calls to some global friends, and we made sure to ask about patterns in the other classrooms.

As we worked through our questions, we kept coming back to our overarching inquiry, what is a pattern?  At first, we just made suggestions and recorded the answers. Later we came back to these suggestions to see if what we had previously documented still reflected our thinking about patterns — adding or removing statements as necessary.  Sometimes we used these scribed responses to determine whether something was a pattern or not.

Showing Their Learning

At the end of the unit, each of the children produced a digital artifact to show what they had learned. These were all posted on their blogs. As this was the first time we had done this, I reminded them of what our objectives were at the beginning, and gave some ideas of ways they might choose to express what they knew, although I was open to their ideas as well. Some students chose to animate their patterns with Animationish or make a digital picture and record their voices with Audioboo. Others chose to use the iPad app ScreenChomp and made a screencast. A few made posters and explained them while another student recorded it on video.

I’m Finding the Passion in PBL

Is this what passion-based learning looks like in a primary classroom? I think I’m getting there. I loved the fact that we could learn curriculum outcomes based on what the students (not the teacher’s guide or myself) chose. Digital artifacts have been a part of my classroom for a long time, but I prized the specificity of the ones we created this time. I have some still-forming ideas for ways I want the next unit to be better. However it turns out, I think I’m hooked. And I’m definitely still learning.

In the meantime, the excitement and learning that took place when we tried to look at ladybugs (they were incredibly fast and hard to keep track of) showed me exactly where we should go with our next unit. Living things, here we come!

Let Them Use Cake

Making Patterns With Cakes

“I wonder if you can make patterns out of cake?” asked one of my five year old cherubs.

“I wonder if you can make patterns with trees?”

“I wonder if you can make patterns with boxes?”

It was the beginning of our patterning unit. I had explained what they were expected to learn,  and the children were responding by telling me what they wondered about patterns.  When everyone had had a chance, I gave each of them a card with I wonder printed on it, and asked them to draw a picture to demonstrate their question.  When they had finished, they brought their pictures to me and I printed their question on the card.  Then they traipsed off to our Wonder Wall to post their question. Some children had only one question–some had several.

The next day, I showed them the math manipulatives we had in the classroom and where we kept some of the other things they might need to find the answers to their questions. There was a momentary pause as they processed the fact that they were allowed to choose what they wanted to do, and then away they went.  Some children chose to do crayon and paper activities while others built their answers with lego or other blocks.  I walked around asking them questions about their patterns, taking pictures and pushing their thinking.

Truthfully, the only frustration of the day was their propensity to say “I’m done.” I think it will take awhile to convince them that they can’t be finished learning.

Patterning with Boxes

There were some I wonders that everyone wanted to do. The cake question was one of them. And when we got thirty-five paper boxes from the office…well, clearly no one wanted to be left out of making patterns with those as well.

For those who were able to answer their questions that day, I printed what they felt they had learned on a strip of paper and they copied it onto an I learned card so that it could be posted onto the What We Learned board.

Was it a successful time of learning? I think so. The students had a clear goal in mind and had to take responsibility for it themselves. They were able to practice the concepts they needed to learn by following their own interests.  They learned with and from each other.

That sounds like success.

Passion-Based Learning–The Adventure Begins

I’m not usually afraid to take risks. I’ve done some things in my classroom that people consider to be innovative.  When there is a new tool that I think will benefit my students, I’m one of the first to try it.

Despite this, somehow the thought of a using an inquiry or passion-based approach in my classroom made me very nervous. I’m not sure why. I’ve done some inquiry units in my classroom in the past.  I’ve always been a teacher that valued choice.  I am comfortable with students choosing different ways to learn and to show their learning. Still, this felt like a big step for me.

Designing a Pattern House

Shelley Wright has been very open about her journey over the past year, and I appreciated her honesty, but as I read, I kept wondering what, beyond the quick sound bites I saw from hers and other classrooms, this would actually look like in a PRIMARY classroom.  When I get my new crop of five and six year olds, none of them can yet read.  This makes it more than a little difficult for them to do traditional research.

Last spring, I decided that I wanted to take the plunge into inquiry learning beginning with this school year.  So during the summer, I made it my mission to find out as much as I could about inquiry classrooms.  I took a passion-based learning class from Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach of Powerful Learning Practice (a great foundation). I went to inquiry learning sessions at PD opportunities I had this summer. I hounded people like Amanda Marrinan and Betty-Lou Ayers for specifics. I bought and read books.

The school year approached and I still felt uneasy. Could I do it? What if it didn’t work? Finally, I decided that I couldn’t just teeter on the brink waiting to see what PBL would look like before I began. The only thing to do was to jump right in and do it. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I’m continuing to look for them along with my students. Let the learning begin.


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