Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

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

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.

The Journey to “Connected From the Start”

Eight years ago, I started out on a journey to open up my classroom and to connect it with the world.

Today is a big day in that journey. My book, Connected From the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades is being released as an eBook.  The thinking, the writing, the editing and the reediting this book has required have been an interesting part of my journey. I’ve had to reflect in a way that I never have before. As this day has FINALLY arrived, I’m feeling a lot of different emotions: trepidation, excitement, satisfaction and hope.

Trepidation Every time I publish something on this blog, I wonder. I wonder what the readers will be thinking as they read it. I wonder how they will respond. I wonder if others will see the potential that I do. A book is a lot of blog posts worth of wonders.

Excitement I’m thrilled that there is now a resource available to help teachers who want to begin connecting their classroom.  I often get emails from teachers who want to start their own journey in connecting their classroom, but aren’t sure where to start.  I’m happy to reply, but you can only say so much in an email. I have always wished that a resource existed that I could point those teachers to. Now there is.

Page from Connected From the StartSatisfaction I’m satisfied that after a year and a half of hard work, there is a user-friendly resource for curious teachers—one full of colour, hyperlinks, pictures and video from my classroom.

Hope is by far the most powerful of the emotions I am feeling. I want those who read my book to understand the tremendous potential that there is in a connected classroom. I hope that I have written a book that will be helpful to those teachers in choosing tools that work well for any grade level, but especially for primary classrooms where our emphasis is on literacy.

I hope that teachers will use this resource to become connected and to realize the powerful potential of social media to transform their classroom from a closed community into a learning space open to the world and with a worldview.

I hope that because of this book, other teachers and classrooms are transformed the way that mine has been.  I hope that other primary teachers can find ways to use tools such as blogs, Skype, and Twitter to open their classroom to the world.

I hope what I have written helps your classroom to be a connected place.  If you want to go on this journey with me, you can find the book here.

My own journey with my classroom continues. I can’t wait to see where it takes us!

1st Look: Skype Group Video Calls

This article was originally posted on the Voices from the Learning Revolution blog of Powerful Learning Practice.

Group Skype Call A couple of weeks ago, Skype announced they are now allowing educators free access to their group video calling. This would mean that in a call with multiple users, you would be able to see the video feed of all the participants. Previously, this feature had been restricted to premium users who pay for the service.

This sounded intriguing to me, so I went to my free Skype in the Classroom account and logged in to get the access code. I followed the instructions, waited 48 hours and voila! I had access to the service. The only thing left to do was to try it out. My primary students had learned so many things in past Skype calls. What would we be able to learn now?

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I had also signed up for Jennifer Wagner’s project to count the marshmallow shapes in a box of Lucky Charms.

I knew that other teachers on Twitter had also signed up, so I tweeted to ask if anyone wanted to join my class and count live together via Skype. A kindergarten class from Winnipeg, a grade three class from northern Manitoba, a grade one class from Surrey and a grade two class in Regina all decided to join us. When I got to school the next day, the teacher next door to me wanted to be part of it as well, so that made six classes for our group video call!

How did it go?

We planned to have a story, to count our Lucky Charms and to share our results via the group chat. One of the teachers also suggested that we could share our results using a (which we did).

I have been using Skype fairly regularly for several years now. There are occasional hiccups, but we just hang up and try again. Five other classes instead of one other class meant five times as many chances for hiccups (and there were a few), but the class next door to me just came into our classroom instead (their video froze) and the one class that none of us could see could see almost all of us, so everyone was happy.

The counting took longer than anticipated, and several of the classes had to leave for various reasons. In the end, it was only my class and one other, so several of my students watched as they finished counting. In the end, we too ran out of time.

Fortunately, we were able to arrange a one to one Skype call with one of the classes the next day to compare our results. I know that other classes were able to work this out as well so that the opportunity for the students to share—the best part of the experience—could be maintained.

Marshmallow Count in Our Lucky Charms Box

What did my students learn from this experience?

  • Counting and Sorting Skills – My grade ones counted the various marshmallow shapes and my grade twos counted the regular shapes.
  • Addition – The grade ones had to add each of their totals together to get a final count. This involved much higher numbers than they were used to using, but they used the strategies they had been practicing on numbers to twenty and were successful. The grade twos also used strategies they were practicing to help the grade ones and to add even larger numbers.
  • Estimating – In the end, there were just too many regular cereal pieces for the grade twos to count, so they used the piles of one hundred they already had and estimated.
  • Comparison – Comparing totals with the other classes.
  • Other Students Far Away Learn the Same Skills We Do – This important notion cannot be over-emphasized. It gives much more credence to your learning when you see other children practicing the same skills.
  • Sometimes Adults Problem Solve, Too – Again, it is valuable to learn that sometimes you need to try other solutions to a problem.

What did I learn?

  • Skype is a great tool – And the opportunity for educators to use the group video feature at no cost is a valuable one.
  • Planning is essential – In hindsight, we had planned far too many things for this call. Having many classes meant that people were not heard. A group call among three or more classrooms needs to be much better focused than a one-to-one call does.

The ability to have group calls has been available on Google+ for a while now, but I think many more teachers are comfortable using Skype as a tool than Google+. While our first experiment with this new free serve may have felt a bit overwhelming, we’ll definitely find great ways to take advantage of it. It will be a valuable addition to my connecting arsenal.

Skype on!

Whose Conference Is It Anyhow?

A few weeks ago, some of my students and I made this short video to show how they feel about blogging. It’s also in my soon-to-be-released book. (End of commercial, I promise.)

What does a blog have to do with student conferences? As one of the children mentions in the video, my students use their blog as an online portfolio. That is, a digital record of what they have been learning and doing in our classroom. That portfolio is the focal point of our student-led conference.

The Portfolio Belongs to the Students

I’ve blogged before about why my students have digital portfolios. The writing, videos, images and podcasts that are part of each student’s portfolio are at first likely to be selected by myself, but as the year progresses, the students take more and more of a role in this choice. Sometimes I ask everyone to post about a certain outcome on their blog. If that is the case, the students usually have choice as to the medium they chose to use. For example, we recently posted about what we had been learning in math and, with several apps to choose from, some students chose to use Educreations while others chose Draw and Tell.  Other times, the students themselves choose what they want to post. During the spate of indoor recesses we had this winter, many of the students took pictures of their recess “creations”, whether falling dominos, Lego creations or villages with 3D blocks and posted these on their blogs. If we have all completed a paper artifact of some kind, I will remind them saying, “if you’d like to post this on your blog, go ahead”. Some do and some don’t. When we were using pastels and practicing perspective, I offered this option. About half of the students chose to post their drawing.  It is their portfolio, so I want them to have some choice about what it contains.

The Conference Belongs to the Students

Twice each year, my school division holds student-led conferences. I ask my students to choose three things that they think they have done well to share at this meeting. Before the conference, I meet briefly with each student to find out what he or she has chosen to share. I do sometimes have criteria. For example, at the conferences we just held, I asked that one of the posts they shared contain writing so that we could discuss that.

When it is time for the conference, the students, with varying amounts of support from me, talk about each of the artifacts that they have chosen, focusing on what they have done well and what they would like to get better at.

I am so proud of the growth in skills and confidence that my students displayed during their conferences. One of my students, who spent our conference last fall huddled on her mother’s knee, answering with only nods, head shakes and occasional words, confidently stood up in front of her parents and with only a little prompting from me, shared aloud what her learning had been for each of the artifacts she had chosen. I felt like I would burst with pride.

Another of my students’ mother could not be present during the conference, so her father made a video of “her presentation” to take home to share. The students know what they need to learn. Our conference is a chance for them to share their progress toward that target.

The Goals Belong to the Students

Another of the objectives of the student-led conference is for the students, with input from myself and from their parents, to set a goal for the next term. Our report cards have a section for goal setting that includes student strengths, goals and steps the student, their parents and I will each take to help meet those goals.  I am always prepared with some options for this, because although the student is not familiar with our curriculum, I do want the student to have some choice. Because I usually teach grade one, the goal we choose is often a reading goal, but if the child is doing well in this area, I will sometimes have some suggestions in other areas as well.  Once the child has chosen the goal, we discuss what the student, their parents and I will each do to help in reaching that goal. The student feels ownership because he or she has been involved in choosing it and in deciding how it will be met.

Like my students, I too am on a learning journey. I get choice in my learning goals. This blog is my space and I get to choose what I post and when. As much as I can, I want to provide those same opportunities for my students. It is their conference. They should have some of the choices that ownership implies.


Back Channeling With Six and Seven Year Olds

I’m not much of a movie-showing kind of teacher. When I first began teaching, I knew a teacher who showed reel-to-reel movies every afternoon.  I didn’t understand that. For me to show video in my classroom, there needs to be a very clear curricular reason and it has to tie in directly with what we are presently learning. It also has to be the best way for my students to learn something.  I sometimes show videos from our Discovery Education account to introduce or clarify concepts for students, but full-length movies rarely happen. This week was one of those uncommon occasions.

Back ChannelingWe have just finished a unit about fairy tales and I decided to show the students a fairy tale they were not familiar with to see if they could identify the characteristics of fairy tales in a non-book format. I also wanted them to look for some of the viewing elements from our curriculum such as colour, shape, size, movement etc.

In the past, I have tried showing a movie and stopping it frequently to allow students to reflect on what they have seen. The students don’t really enjoy this, as it interrupts the flow of the story. (“Can’t we watch it all first?”) But, if I wait until the end, the students have forgotten much of what they have seen. The reflective moments have passed.

This time, I decided to try back channelling. If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to using an online connection to share your thoughts and have a conversation during a lecture or presentation of some kind. I wondered if this would be a better option for my students than what I had done before. Since each of my students have their own iPad, I decided to let them tweet during the movie, using our Twitter feed as a back channel. The children had never heard the term back channeling before, but I explained that it was something that people did to help themselves to be better listeners and to show what they were learning. They could tweet their learning as they watched. The students couldn’t believe their luck. An entire movie with their iPad in front of them.  (“We NEVER get to watch movies,” said one of the students who is in my class for the second year, his voice full of wonder.) This was clearly going to be awesome.

The students are all used to tweeting on our classroom Twitter account, so there was a strong comfort level with this process. Before we began, I reviewed with them the characteristics of fairy tales from the anchor chart we had made together. We also looked at our anchor charts for viewing.  The students knew that we would need a hashtag (we’ve made them before) and quickly thought of one, #fairytales13. We tested to make sure no one else was using it and we were ready to go.

I knew there would be a lot of tweets , so before we started, I typed a quick tweet to warn anyone who follows my class of this and we began. The students tweeted out fairy tale characteristics that they noticed

And then moved on to some viewing elements.

After the students left for the day, I aggregated their tweets together using Storify. I now had a record of all of the tweets from that event for reflection and for assessment purposes.

It was interesting to watch my students through this process. They all wanted to share what they saw by tweeting (and did!). Some spent a lot of time thinking as they wrote their thoughts and others were very confident, sharing many tweets. Some students were so caught up in the visual display that they had difficulty taking the time to finish their tweets. Some shared many brief snippets while others put several observations into each tweet. (Frankly, this all reminded me of the various adult personalities I see tweeting during a keynote at an educational technology conference.) Many of them scrolled through the tweets of their peers, commenting aloud to each other about similarities and about the ideas other students had had.

I had seen other teachers back channel with young students before and we had done a whiteboard version together last fall, but for various reasons we had never done it using our iPads. Throughout this viewing experience, I watched as my students listened, watched, reflected, wrote and read together. They were supporting each other as they were learning and they were all able to clearly show what their learning was. Our first back channeling experience was a success.

Will we do it again? Absolutely!

You Can’t Teach Literacy With Skype, Can You?

We Learn Best From People

I have a few grade two students in my classroom this year for the first time in half a dozen years. Since the last time I had a grade one/two split, the curriculum has changed.  Naturally, I have spent time reading through the grade two curriculum. But when I have specific questions about what my seven year olds need to know, I don’t usually try to find the answer in the curriculum.  I just walk across the hall and ask the grade two teacher. She explains it well and gives me the practical information that I need.  She is also likely to add a few things I had never thought to ask that will help me to be a better teacher of that concept. Learning from her is much richer than the answer in the curriculum guide.

My students learn best from people as well. When some of the students wondered aloud about what it was like to move, I had some picture books handy, but the learning was far deeper when we asked a student in my class who had actually moved. Even the best book or digital program is no match for  personal contact.

I’ve noticed this online as well. People often ask a question on Twitter that can easily be googled. I’ve done this myself.  Somehow we feel more confident in an answer when another person is directly involved. We like to be able to question and push back. Simply put, we learn from best from people.

Because I want this best learning, we often use Skype as a learning tool.  Skype connects us to people. I made the following video for my about-to-be-published book to show some of the ways we use Skype in our classroom. As always, my students say it best.

OK… But Literacy?

Skype is also one of the tools in my literacy instruction. The listening and speaking components of Skype are obvious ones, and we use it often that way. We learn about similarities and differences and ask and answer questions with others from far away. But, we have used Skype for more traditional literacy activities as well.

  • Many times, teachers or others have taken the time to read my class a story or poem via Skype. These experiences have introduced us to books and authors we would not otherwise have encountered and enriched our learning as a result.
  • People have been willing to listen to my students read via Skype, helping them to increase their confidence and their reading fluency.
  • We have done Reader’s Theatre with a class from Alabama.
  • We have shared reading strategies with another class, marveling that they used the same strategies that we did when working to improve their reading skills.
  • We have made reading connections with various classrooms. “Hey, we like that book, too!” or “we have a books by Robert Munsch in our library!” We have even learned a special silent hand sign to show we had made one of these links from the Kinderkids in New Hampshire. (We make a signed y with our fist and rock our hand back and forth in front of our chest—it saves a chorus of comments like the ones previously mentioned.)
  • Later this week my class will be making up some nonsense silent e words to see if some students in South Carolina can decode them. They’ll do the same for us.

Can you teach literacy with Skype? You bet. We learn best from people, and Skype connects us with people.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: