Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

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

Mystery Number Skype: Even a Six Year Old Can Do It

I’ve heard a lot about Mystery Skype calls over the past few years.  If you’re not familiar with this term, the basic idea is that two classrooms chat via Skype and try to guess where the other class is from by answering questions with only yes or no answers. I’ve always thought this would be lots of fun, but it has always seemed out of the reach of my six year olds, many of whom are still struggling to realize that they live in both a city AND a province.  Answering questions about our location would be out of the question.

I toyed with many ideas for ways that my class COULD do a Mystery Skype, (mystery letter, mystery word etc.) but it wasn’t until I saw a document about Mystery Number Skype that the lights suddenly came on.  For my class, numbers to one thousand (or even one hundred at that point) were out of the question, but suddenly, I realized we COULD do a call about numbers to twenty. You can get lots of ideas for doing a Mystery Number Skype with older students on the document I just mentioned, but if your students are still learning their numbers, this is…

How It Works in My Classroom

While there is no one way to do a Mystery Number Skype call, we’ve now done about a half dozen of them and this is how we have found it to work best.

  1. When we are getting ready to play mystery number Skype, everyone, including the teacher, writes the numbers up to 20 on a small whiteboard. (We got this idea from Karen Lirenman’s class during our first Mystery Number call.) Paper or a drawing app on an iPad could also work.
  2. Each class secretly chooses a number between 1 and 20. We usually do this before the call as well.
  3. Each class asks questions with yes or no answers to try to guess what the other class’s number is.
  4. For our purposes, we have one class guess until they get the correct answer and then the other class guesses. For my young students, this has so far worked the best.

Crossing Off Numbers

As the students determine which numbers have been eliminated, they cross them off or erase them from their boards. I do the same to help those who are still unsure of their numbers (or who were distracted and missed something). Besides being a great way to practice identifying the numbers, it keeps all of the students engaged during the call.

Hints to Get the Most Out of the Call

If you teach young students, remind them that it is a MYSTERY number, like a secret. In one of our calls this fall, a student in the other class kept bursting out “it’s sixteen!” I tried valiantly not to giggle as my students ignored this and went on guessing.

Agree on the rules ahead of time.  Assume nothing. In another of our calls, I assumed that the other teacher had seen a post about our first mystery number call on our classroom blog and was familiar with the way we had been doing this. Imagine the surprise of my students, some of whom were still working on their numbers to ten, when the other class’s first question was “what is two eights plus three?” (This could also have been a great way to practice numbers together, but was not what we were expecting!) You might also want to clarify what the other class knows about numbers. There is no use to ask if the number is divisible by 8 if the other class does not yet understand that concept.

Ready to Guess the Number

Think about who will ask the questions. At first, I allowed the more confident children to do this, but I now want to give a little nudge to quieter students who can also participate with some support.

I encourage what I call “fat” questions (these questions can eliminate multiple numbers) by discussing options ahead of time, but allow the students to ask questions of any kind.  My students’ questions range from “Is it eight?”  to “Does the number have a curved line?” to “Is it between sixteen and eighteen?”

Why I Love Mystery Number Calls

These calls work well on so many levels. I use Mystery Number Skype calls in our classroom because:

  • My students are writing the numbers to get ready. Purposeful practice.
  • Everyone is learning at their own level, whether that student is still learning to write the numbers, is struggling to distinguish between 11 and 12 (why do those pesky numbers not follow the ‘teen’ rule?) or is formulating questions that eliminate lots of possible numbers. We can all participate in the same activity, but the learning is differentiated.
  • While we are discussing numbers, my students are learning that other children far away are learning the same things as they are. This is a big step in global awareness.
  • My students are learning one more way to use technology to help them to reach their learning goals. This kind of digital literacy is important for children growing up in an online age.

If you have other great ideas for dong this that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them. We’re looking forward to more calls like this—soon we’ll be ready for numbers up to one hundred!

Using Blogs and Twitter With Young Students: THIS is What it Looks Like

I talk and share what I do with a lots of teachers.  When these educators hear about the ways their colleagues are using blogs and Twitter in their classrooms they are intrigued. Most of them are interested enough to want to look further, but the idea is a bit overwhelming.  I find this to be especially true of primary teachers. “What would that look like with young children?” they wonder.  “What do the different blogging tools look like if you teach six year olds?”  “How could you use Twitter in a kindergarten classroom?” “Yes, I can see what that would look like with older students, but my students are young. Most of them can’t yet write. What would THAT look like?”

Reading Tweets

Reading Tweets

What they really want to see are examples. I can show them my classroom blog and my classroom Twitter account, but there are so many other fabulous classrooms out there learning and sharing their learning in unique and effective ways. Ways that teach traditional literacy skills while also teaching digital literacy including how to learn and how to be safe online.

So for those people who have asked the questions and for anyone else who wants to see what blogging and tweeting in a primary classroom looks like, check out the links to examples below.

This is what it can look like:

Primary (to me that means age 3 – 8) Classes that Tweet*

Primary (again, ages 3 – 8) Classroom Blogs

And just so that those of you who teach older students don’t feel left out, here are some lists for older elementary students.

Classrooms That Tweet (all age levels)*

More Classrooms that Tweet*

Elementary (ages 8 – 12) Classroom Blogs



I’m grateful to teachers who are willing to add their information to lists like these that are such a help to educators who are just beginning their social media journey.  When you start your own journey, don’t forget to add your link to a list!

A link really is worth a thousand words!

Maybe more.

[*Note: If you have never used Twitter, but want to see the tweets of those teachers who are, you just need to type in a browser to access their home page with all of their tweets. For example, my classroom Twitter account’s URL is]


What Would You Have Said?

This past week I received this comment on my classroom blog. [Additional Note: I have never met this person. It is not one of my students' parents.]

Comment 2

The online world that I usually inhabit is a bit of an echo chamber. The people there are online and think that being online is a good thing. It is sometimes good to be reminded that not everyone shares that opinion. This comment pushed me to rethink why I do what I do and whether it is defensible.  My reply is below.

Thank you for your comment.  You clearly care enough about children to comment and I respect that.

I take the safety of my students very seriously.  We regularly talk about how they can keep themselves safe in many different situations. Being online is just one more place they need to learn to be safe.

Classroom BlogYes, I do post pictures of my students online. If you notice, I post pictures of the students only on MY blog, where there are no names ever attached. The students’ FIRST names are attached to their own blog, but you will never see a photo of the student on their own blog, or their last name.  (In fact, I know of blogs in which the teachers do, with the parents’ permission, identify the children by name, but that is not my policy.)

I teach my students carefully about what is appropriate to put online and what is not. They quickly learn how to take photos and make videos that do not show faces so that they can be posted on their blog. When we read comments together, they soon learn to point out if a parent has accidentally included a last name and together we delete that comment before it is posted for the world to see.

It is true that Adam likes Mario. So does every other boy and some of the girls in my classroom. I’m sure this holds true for most six-year-olds.

Although no negative thing has ever happened because of our blog, many wonderful things have happened.  

Because of our blog, the parents of my students are able to watch their child’s learning and as the parents leave comments (which are an integral part of our reading instruction) they become part of the learning as well. Grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, older siblings and other friends drop by just to see what is happening, and may leave a comment as well.  My students beam with pride as the comments, written just for them, are read aloud.

Because of our blog, my students have an audience. They look at the tiny dots on our Clustr map and know that even if people are not commenting, people are seeing what they are posting.  An audience is a powerful motivator for people of any age. Writing for a real audience is so much more powerful than writing something in a notebook that only your teacher will see.

Because of our blog, we sometimes have comments from people we have never met, but who are cheering my students on as they are learning.  These comments send us to a map to find out where in the world Texas, or Romania or Ontario is and then leads to other serendipitous learning and perhaps to a face-to-face meeting through a videoconference of some kind.

Because of our blog, we sometimes get videos or items in the mail from people in far away places. These unexpected treasures lead to even more learning, particularly about empathy and understanding of people who live differently than we do.

Because of our blog, my students are leaning about digital literacy.  In a safe environment, with me to guide them, they are learning what it is appropriate to put online and what is something that should be kept private.  They are beginning to create a positive digital footprint. The Internet is here to stay, and I would prefer that my students learn about online etiquette and safety than to leave this learning to chance.

I’m not sure if you know this, but hundreds (probably thousands) of teachers are now doing the same thing as me—sharing the learning in their classroom online through classroom blogs, Twitter accounts or Facebook pages.  

I hope that you can see the positive impact this new way of learning has had on my classroom. Just as with anything new I do in my classroom, I weigh the benefits against any possible risk or difficulties. With the safety features I have built into the blogging process in our classroom and the ongoing discussions I have with the children, there is no contest.  Blogging has opened too many doors for us.

What would you add? How do YOU defend what you do?

But the Parents Aren’t on Twitter…They’re on Facebook!


Since 2005, all of my grade one students have had their own blog. Those blogs show my students’ learning from the first week of school until the last week.

Every year of that time, I have encouraged the students’ parents to comment, knowing that while the students love getting comments from me or from people they have never met, the comments that really mean the most are those from their parents and others who love them.  It has been my experience over the years that while some parents are very faithful at commenting, most do not find the time to comment regularly, and many don’t ever comment at all.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. How could I remind the parents about their child’s blog? How could I get the parents to their child’s blog more often? I tried holding commenting nights. I tried various other reminders such as emails, but have never had the success I was hoping for. Eventually, we started tweeting as a class as well. Twitter has become another great learning space for my class, but again, very few parents followed us there.

What About Facebook?

Our Facebook Page

As I was musing about this last summer, it occurred to me that while my class is a frequent user of social media with our classroom blog and Twitter account, neither of those were social media spaces that my students’ parents were using. Social media spaces are great for connecting, but only if the people you want to connect with are in that space as well. It occurred to me that my students’ parents were probably on Facebook! Perhaps I should enter that space as well?
I’m not a big Facebook user, so I had to ask my daughter to help me out with the best option but with her help, I set up a “page” for my class (see instructions at bottom of this post). This way, I get to control the information on the page through my own login, but it is not associated in any way with my personal page. Beginning in September, each time I put a post on our classroom blog, I put a link to the article on our Facebook page.

At our grade one parent information night during the second week of school, I asked the parents how many of them were on Twitter. One raised her hand. “How many of you access a Facebook account fairly regularly?” Most of them agreed that they did. I explained the page that I had set up, and suggested that if they “liked” the Facebook page, they would get a notification in their timeline each time I posted.

Learning to Comment

At that information night, I also asked the parents to comment on their child’s blog before they left that evening. In the past, along with talking about how children learn to read and how parents can support that process, I have shown the parents our blog and demonstrated how to comment, but this year we had a few extra minutes at the end, so after my modeling, I asked them to use one of our classroom iPads and to leave a comment for their child. I was there to help if they needed it, but apparently no one did. The next morning, I had lots of happy children who beamed as their special comment was read aloud. That seemed to set a pattern.

Reading Comments Together

This fall, my students have received more parent comments than they ever have before. The sheer volume of comments some of my students have received has blown me away. It could be that this year I just have outstanding parents who are eager to be involved in their child’s education. While I am sure that is true, I have thought that same thing other years as well, but we have not had as many comments.

It appears that having the parents see that notification in their Facebook timeline encourages the parents follow the link to see what we are up to in our classroom and it seems to remind them to check their child’s blog as well.

I can’t truthfully say whether it was the commenting practice at the parent night or the Facebook page that has made the difference, but you can bet I will be doing both again next school year as well. Instead of trying to bring the parents into the spaces our class are in, I have now gone where the parents are instead. No wonder it is more successful! A couple of small changes, but they seem to have made a big difference.

Setting Up a Separate Facebook Page for Your Class

If you do not already have a Facebook page yourself, the best thing is to set one up for yourself first. You don’t have to use it, but it is the starting place for the way I did my class page.

Facebook has changed the way to find this since the summer, but if I was to do it now, I would click on create ad and then create page. I chose the Company, Organization or Institution option and then just added the information I was prompted to give. Voila! It is not associated with my personal page in any way except that I control it through my account.

The Early Literacy Shift: New Words, New Media, New Friends

This article was originally published on the Voices From the Learning Revolution blog of Powerful Learning Practice.

Literacy is changing. It really is. Even in my grade one classroom as the students begin to learn their letters and sounds, as they start to put those letters and sounds together into words, and as they take their first hesitant steps to read and write.

The change in our classroom was subtle at first. When my students began writing the word we with two i’s, I smiled and talked about the more traditional spelling of the word. When students came to school with a clear understanding of what it meant to get to the next level or to have several lives, I took notice of the new vocabulary they had.

And when I had to explain why iPod didn’t start with an upper case letter the way proper nouns usually did, well, I decided all of the rules were up for grabs. The changes I have mentioned are rather superficial, but they are indicators of a large shift that has been taking place in the way that I teach literacy.

New Vocabulary

The examples above are just some of the new words that my students take for granted that did not even exist 20 years ago. It used to be that new vocabulary meant words like glossarytable of contents, title page and indent. It still does, but added to that are new words such as re-tweetavatar and pingback.

New Tools

It used to be that we read text in books or on charts (the later usually handwritten by me). Now, we read on iPads, on computers and on an interactive whiteboard. The students see their parents reading on their handheld devices daily and understand that as a viable form of reading as well.

New Ways to Learn

It used to be that my class was isolated. Our learning community was just my 20 or so students and I, working together, with occasional forays into the other classrooms in the school. Now, we routinely practice and learn with other classes around the world.  When we use Twitter as a backchannel while we look for characteristics of fairy tales or use Skype to do Reader’s Theatre with classes in Florida and Pennsylvania, or to practice phonics rules with students in South Carolina, we are learning in new ways. Ways that allow us to grow in knowledge and skills from our contacts with other learners.


New Audiences

It used to be that my students learned to write by writing on paper. Sometimes they wrote in notebooks and sometimes they wrote on single sheets, but no matter how they wrote, I was the intended audience. In most cases, I was the only person who ever saw that writing.

Sometimes their parents would take the time to read through their notebooks and papers as they came home or at the end of the school year. Sometimes they would read their writing aloud to the class. But in most cases, unless I posted their writing on a bulletin board in the hallway, a very limited number of people had access to that writing.

Wow! Has that changed!

Now, my students regularly write on their blogs, not just for me, but also for their parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends and potentially the whole world to see. When they write a tweet, they have the potential of all of our Twitter followers seeing what they write, and since many of our followers are classroom groups, that number is potentially far higher. Not exactly the same as writing in a notebook. Their audience now exists in places they have never been and may never visit.

New Communication Forms

kc-ipad-chat-300It used to be that my students wrote personal narratives, imaginary stories, riddles and information text. They still write all of those, but often use a blog format to publish them. They also learn to compose comments for their friends in our classroom and in other classrooms whose blogs we follow. We talk about and practice what makes good comments and learn how to appropriately participate in online conversations. They also compose tweets, thinking about how to clearly articulate their thoughts in 140 characters or less.

Twenty years ago, my students used writing and drawing to share their thoughts and ideas. There were no other choices for young children. Now, my students are able to communicate through a variety of media, including photosvideospodcastsinteractive books andscreencasts.

No Going Back

The days of students reading only books, writing only on paper and becoming literate in an isolated classroom have passed. That classroom is outdated. Is yours?


Miss BLC? You Can Still Watch the Keynotes!

Alan November, the founder of November Learning, did something distinctly different for the closing keynote at his Building Learning Communities Education Conference last month. Instead of having one person speak, he asked four diverse individuals to each deliver a fifteen minute TED-like talk. I was honoured to be chosen as one of the presenters. The speakers, in order of appearance were me, No Tosh consultant Tom Barrett, high school teacher Catlin Tucker and University of Regina professor Alec Couros.

Several people asked me if the keynotes had been recorded, but since I had seen no evidence of the cameras that I had seen in previous years at the plenary sessions, I said “no”. I was wrong! (Talk about unobtrusive camera work…) The keynotes were recorded, edited and now anyone can see them, even if you were not fortunate enough to attend the conference.

I see that the other two BLC keynotes by Dr. Yong Zhao and Dr. David Weinberger have also been posted.  Both are inspiring and well worth watching.

My First Year of One to One: A Reflection

Best Buy CardA little over a year ago, I won a contest from Best Buy Canada. The contest asked applicants to write about what they would purchase at Best Buy if they had any amount up to $20 000 to spend. Since it had long been my dream to be a one to one classroom, and I was intrigued by the possibilities that iPads held for young children, I chose to say that I would purchase a class set of iPads.  Much to my delight, I was chosen as a winner, and I had the opportunity to go on the shopping trip of a lifetime! (This contest now appears to have disappeared.)

While the initial and on-going management of 30 iPads is no mean feat, I have loved having this opportunity for my students. Some day I may blog about specific apps or ways of using them that work particularly well for me, but this summer has given me an opportunity to reflect on some of the overall changes that have happened in my classroom.


One of my fears when I was able to put a device into the hands of every student was that the students might focus on the screen, the way many children do with a television or a computer. Those children become absorbed by the device, ignoring all that is going on around them.

Happily, this has not at all proved to be the case for us. The students did not want to just use the iPads; they wanted to share them.  The hum of voices excitedly talking to their peers about what they were doing was just the same as it had always been. They just had different things to share.

Children Using iPadsOddly, this showed up in an interesting way in my classroom. The couch was a popular place to work, but once that was full, some students would pull chairs next to the couch forming a line of learners sitting side by side. This happened over and over. When that line was “full”, the next students would make a line in front of the couch. The only logical reason I could see for this was their ease in sharing what was on their screen. And share they did. There was a constant chorus of “how did you do that?” and “look what I did” going on in my classroom.

Sharing Their Learning

Over many years, I have been moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered one.  One of the things I have come to value most highly is choice.  I have offered my students as much choice in how they learn and in how they demonstrate their learning as I can. The iPads have given my students so many more opportunities for choice.

Taking a Pictures with an iPadFor example, at the end of a unit of inquiry, I ask the students to share their learning with me through an artifact that they create.  There were always a few digital choices available in my classroom, but the iPads have given us a rich variety of options that were just not available before. The students can now choose to use photos, podcasts, screencasts, videointer-active books…well, you get the idea. My only criteria is that whatever they produce, they must have some kind of digital product that can be archived on their digital portfolio.

Interestingly, the run away favourite way to sum up what they knew was to draw pictures with markers, to post these pictures on a large sheet of construction paper and to make a video of themselves talking about the images they had drawn.  The iPads offered a variety of ways to do this.


Using iPads on the CouchKeeping students engaged is never really an issue in grade one. Six year olds are interested in most anything.  If I told them we were going to do some rote practice of math facts with enough enthusiasm, they would probably cheer about it.  Having said that, they were indeed engaged!  The opportunity for them to have access to a device with a variety of apps that could allow them to explore and create was something they loved. My children were not using their iPads in every spare moment—they still liked other classroom tools such as Lego, dominos and drawing paper—but the iPads were a popular choice, even at lunch hour or recess when the weather was too cold to go outside.

Independent Learning

Having iPads gave my students a new way to learn things that were not part of our curriculum. I put some apps on our iPads just because I thought they looked interesting, and not because I had a direct plan for them. One of the apps that I put on the iPads was GarageBand. I had never used it, but I knew that other teachers had used it in interesting ways, so I added it.  I didn’t get around to figuring out how to use it, but my students did. They taught themselves and then taught me as well. We were able to save some of their music and to use it for our classroom videos. The same was true of a clay molding app called 123D Sculpt. Again, the students taught themselves how to use it. We never did post any of these clay creations anywhere, but the students loved to use it.

This past year, my students were fascinated by what you could do with dominos—both with setting them on their ends and watching them fall and with seeing how high they could be stacked. They tried various ways to stack and as they got better at this, one student or another would document this learning as it was happening. They did this independently, without any prompting from me. It was just something that they wanted to do.


I strive to help my students to understand themselves as learners. I want them to choose ways to help themselves learn that work for them, not necessarily for me.  For some skills, such as reading, spelling and counting, there is just no substitute for practice. The iPads gave my students additional ways to practice each of these skills, finding a way that best helped them to learn. I would sometimes suggest a way to practice that I thought would work well, but I generally trusted them to make the decisions they needed to make for what worked for them.

Reading on iPad and BookTo practice each of these skills, my students sometimes chose digital and sometimes non-digital means. For example, I put many eBooks on the Kindle app on our iPads as an option for our independent reading time. The students could also read blog posts by the teachers or students in other classrooms. They could read our Twitter feed. Or they could read books. Some students preferred digital and some preferred non-digital, but most moved seamlessly back and forth between the two.


Reading on an iPadThere was something very special for my students in having their own device. They never had to wait their turn. Whenever they needed it for learning, it as available to them. All of the photos, videos and other artifacts on the iPad were theirs. No one was deleting things that were important to them. They looked after the charging and care of their iPad. If they forgot to charge their battery, they had to stand by the charging shelf as they worked. I don’t think anyone had to do that twice.

I realize that money is a huge factor in the one to one issue. There are presently very few models that allow this choice for everyone.  No other classrooms in my school have this option.  Having seen the results for myself though, I think we need to do some outside of the box thinking about how we can make this happen.  I know one teacher who held weekly pizza sales at lunch to make it work in her classroom. Do you have other ideas? I’d like to hear them. This kind of learning needs to be spread around.

Awards and Advice: There Really is Joy in Helping Others

This year I made a conscious decision near the end of the school year to help my students to think outside of themselves. Six and seven year olds are usually all about self and being fair. It’s the developmental stage they are at. They have trouble thinking of others and how they might be feeling. (Truth be told, many adults do as well, but that is another post.)

We did several things at the very end of the school year worked especially well for this, but I’ll share a couple that I think are keepers.

Thinking About Next Year’s Class

We had a chat about how the students had felt when they were just coming into my classroom. What did they wonder? What were they worried about? What made them feel scared?

It was fascinating to listen to the fears each one had had. Many of their worries centered on what they should do, whether the “work” would be too hard for them and (this next one obviously loomed very large for some of the students) was the teacher mean? After the students eagerly shared all of their earlier concerns, I asked them whether they thought that next year’s class would have the same wonders. Yes! What would they want to tell next year’s class to help them understand our classroom, our routines and the expectations in grade one? Their answers came quickly.

The result is this video. I will be sharing it with my new students in a letter later this summer, and on the first day of school next year we’ll all watch it together.

Kids thinking outside of themselves. Kids helping kids. And feeling great because they could be the helpers.

What Are My Friends Good At?

The other highly successful thing I did this year was to have my students give awards to their classmates. This idea was the brainchild of Karen Lirenman and I followed her yearly routine very closely as I did this. I asked the children not to base the awards on academic subjects that their friends were good at, but instead to think of the personal qualities they had.  What made them special? I put each student’s name at the top of three awards to ensure that each student would get the same number of awards and then I randomly passed them out to students.  As the students finished doing one award, I handed them another one to do, so not everyone filled out the same number of awards, but everyone wrote at least one. They loved finding a private place in the classroom to think about and write out their observations. I was touched to see how thoughtful some of their comments were.  The students who wrote that their friends were “kind” or “stuck up for other people” or “helps me when I don’t know what to do” were so accurate in their assessment of their classmates.  I made a big deal that these were secrets and that even after they were given out, no one should know who had written them. I also filled out an award for each child, again based on their character and not their academic standing.

The students asked several times when it would be time to give them out. When the finally time came, I made a production out of each award, starting with “this award is given to someone who…” and then “this award goes to…” Each time the student receiving the award beamed with pride and their classmates (without my prompting) clapped and cheered. I have not been a big awards person over the course of my career, but it was far and away THE best award time of my career.  All the students were honoured for their strengths.  They all felt joy. It doesn’t get better than that. I’m indebted to Karen for sharing this idea and how she made it work in her classroom with me.

It occurs to me that we (well I in particular) need to take more time to celebrate these things in the classroom. It is so easy for me to be consumed with meeting curriculum outcomes, finding a way to support each child’s interests and helping my struggling readers that I fail to take time for these small, meaningful moments. My goal was to get the students to think of others, but both instances resulted in the students feeling better about themselves. There’s another lesson in that, isn’t there?


Assessing Student Progress Using Blog-Based Portfolios

This article was originally published on the Powerful Learning blog of Powerful Learning Practice.

A Great Tool to Continuously Assess Progress

In my classroom, each of my grade one and grade two students has their own blog. These blogs also serve as digital portfolios. Throughout the school year, the children post artifacts of their learning from all subject areas, including writing samplespodcasts of reading fluency,photos of artworkexplanations of mathematics concepts and videos that summarize their learning in science, health and social studies. (Note: The videos linked to in this blog post work best when played through Google Chrome.)

The children have these online portfolios for many reasons, including an authentic audience, parental engagement, and the opportunity to create an online community. We also use these digital portfolios for assessment, but not in the “this goes on the report card” sense that you might expect.

Formative Assessment

I am continually doing formative assessment in my classroom — that is, assessment for learning. As I watch the students, listen to their questions and answers and see the learning artifacts they produce, I am constantly gauging their understanding of a concept and their readiness to move on to the next one. Experienced teachers do a lot of this kind of immediate, ongoing assessment without much conscious thought.

This continuous formative assessment is one of the primary purposes of our digital portfolios in my mind. The artifacts on my students’ digital portfolios inform my teaching and help me to meet the particular needs of each of my learners. The chronological nature of blog posts lets my students, their parents and me see where the children began and where they are at present. We can think together about where we want to go next.

In fact, we use what is posted on the student’s blog as the starting points for our discussions at our student-led conferences where we look (with parents) at what they have posted and set goals for the next term.

Verbal explanations I have always used formative assessment in my classroom, but our digital portfolios give me much richer information than our paper portfolios ever did. Because my young students are still beginning writers, it is often difficult for them to explain their learning through writing. They can, however, explain their learning verbally. There are lots of apps (including my current iPad favorites Educreations and Draw & Tell) that record voice over an image. These digital artifacts allow me to understand a child’s thinking in a much deeper way.

For example, I recently asked my grade two students to record their thinking while solving a two-digit math equation that involved “borrowing.” They were all able to demonstrate for me that they could do the process involved in solving this kind of equation. If I had been using paper for this that would have been the end of my understanding. Because the students had recorded their thinking at the same time using a screen-casting app, I could tell that although they could all do the mechanics of the problem, most of them could not enunciate that they were actually borrowing a ten. Clearly more learning needed to be done. If I had been using paper portfolios, I would not have realized this.

When my grade one students explained the addition strategies that they knew using a screen-casting app, I had only to watch their videos to realize which students needed further instruction for which strategies.

Self-assessment is part of our formative assessment process. Self-reflection is important to any learner, whether old or young. While I ask my students to self-assess frequently, I have only recently begun asking them to include this as part of their portfolio. I intend to make this a more regular habit. KC-using-ipads

Summative Assessment

There are some occasions when I think a student’s digital portfolio can be used for summative assessment or assessment of learning.

For example, at the end of units of learning in science, social studies or health, I ask my students to create a project that shows what they have learned about that particular topic. We talk about digital and paper choices they could make for sharing what they know (despite our 1-to-1 iPad environment, markers and poster board are still extremely popular). Then we make an anchor chart about what they should include in their project.

One of the criteria for these end-of-unit summaries is that they must be put into a digital form that can be posted on their blog. Making a video that shows the artifact they have created along with a verbal explanation of the necessary information is the most popular way to do this. Once the students have completed the assignment, I have a rich record of their learning. I use these projects as summative assessment.

The important thing that makes this assessment summative is that the students know, before they start, that this is going to be used as a final assessment. They also know what needs to be included and the criteria that I will be using when I judge it.

Sometimes No Assessment is Necessary

A few of the items that my students post to their portfolio are for neither formative norsummative assessment. KC-student-illustrationThese are posts that are selected by the students themselves to show the things that they have chosen to learn on their own –  either during an indoor recess (we get more than our share of these during the winters in Saskatchewan), at home, or after they have completed a project at school. These posts include drawings of SpongeBob SquarePants, pictures of Lego creations or videos of dominos falling.

While these creations have nothing to do with our curriculum, they are important to the child and thus important to include as part of their digital portfolio.

The beauty of digital portfolios is that as the children and I are constantly assessing their learning in a formative and summative way, the students are also demonstrating their growing knowledge for a wide audience and learning about digital citizenship and appropriate online behavior. What great by-products of the assessment process!

Giving Student Choice with Digital Portfolios

My grade one students each have their own blogs that are digital portfolios of their progress from the first week of school until the last one. On those blogs, they post writing, images, video and other artifacts that show what they have been learning. I’ve written (there is an entire chapter in my book) and talked before about digital portfolios, why we use them and how I use them for assessment.

Recently, someone asked me about how I provide for choice in our portfolios. What a great question! Choice should an important part of digital portfolios, and I give my students as much choice as I can as soon as I can.

At the beginning of the school year, as we are learning what it means to show our learning and possible ways to do this, there are fewer choices for the students, but as the year progresses and they become more independent, I turn the choice over to them more and more often.

There are four kinds of posts on my students’ blogs:

  1.  Screen Shot of Zak's VisualizingWe all post a similar artifact. Sometimes when we’ve done something together that I think belongs on their digital record, I do ask them to all post it to their blog. For example, we were recently working on the reading skill of visualizing. I wanted a sample of this to appear on their blogs. Since the students all had several images, and I wanted them to learn how to use the Pic Collage app that I had added to their iPads, I showed them how to use it and asked them to use it to post their images on their blogs.
  2. I choose the outcome but my students choose the tool. That is, I ask them to post about a particular outcome(s), but I give them the choice as to how they show what they know about that outcome. They can choose a digital tool or markers and paper; the choice is theirs. If they choose a non-digital means, they know they will need to make a video or take a picture so that their work can be posted on their blog. Recently, we finished a unit of work about the First Nations people of Saskatchewan, so each of the students got to choose how they would like to show what they had learned. Making a poster with paper and markers was by far the most popular choice, and then those students made a video to explain what they had drawn. Other students chose to take pictures of some artifacts we had in our classroom and then to use the Draw and Tell app to record their voice with individual pictures. Those short videos were then put together using iMovie and posted on their blogs.
  3. 3. The students have a choice about whether or not to post a learning artifact. Often, when we have done something that I think many of them have done well, I will say, “if you would like to post this on your blog, now is a good time to do it”. Some students do and others choose not to.This was the case lately with several pieces of artwork that were completed. The students who wanted to post their artwork simply took a picture of it with their iPad and posted it straight to their blog using the Edublogs app we all use for posting.
  4. The students choose the learning and the tool. As the students become more confident, they begin to ask if they can post things on their blog–things that may not have anything to do with the outcomes that we are studying in school, but are important to them. These might include something they made out of Lego, or a picture they drew or a video they made of falling dominos during an indoor recess. I always say yes because it is, after all, their portfolio.

Learning how to make choices, how to demonstrate your learning and how to choose the best tool to effectively do that are important skills for anyone to learn, and I want the children in my classroom to begin to learn how to do that early in their school career.


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