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.

Why My Six-Year-Olds Have Digital Portfolios

This article was originally posted on the Getting Smart blog.

From the first week of school, the six year olds in my classroom begin to create an online presence in the form of a digital portfolio.  We use a blogging platform to do this, and include artifacts that show their progress in writing, reading, math, social studies and science.

I am frequently asked why I do this.  Even more frequently, I can see in a colleague’s eyes that they are thinking “why”, even if they don’t verbalize their question.  The way that those educators have always done portfolios has worked well for them. Their students are learning the things they need to learn and are building a paper portfolio as they do so. Why do I take the extra time to upload those artifacts?


For any writer or creator, it is all about the audience.  Why would a student even want to write on a piece of paper for their teacher to see when they could write on their blog for the world to see?

Because a blog allows comments, the students’ thoughts and learning can be not only read, but responded to as well.  Students relish the feedback a comment gives, whether it is from a classmate, a parent, or someone they have never met. The audience becomes part of the student’s learning.

Creating a Community of Ripples

Having a blog creates a community around our classroom. The articles, podcasts, images and video we post are like stones dropped into a pond.

The first ripple in our circle of community is the circle of parents. Parents can watch their child’s blog and observe their child’s progress first hand. They don’t have to wait until our student-led conferences to see what and how their child has been learning.  The growth is obvious for them to see.

The next ripple is the circle of the child’s extended family, friends and our local community. They, too can watch, encourage and interact.  Often, this circle includes students who have been in my classroom in the past and who come back to our blog to comment and encourage the younger students.

The largest circle is—well—the entire world. We have received comments from many places including many states in the USA, classrooms across Canada, India, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and New Zealand. And those are just this school year.

That is a very large community.

Digital Footprint

Even at a young age, it is important to begin to have an idea of the significance of a digital footprint, including what things are appropriate to post online, how to protect your identity and ways to interact with others in an online space.  As my six-year-olds grow up, the world will become increasingly digital. Tools will change, but connectedness will continue to grow.   Children need to learn early that it is important to present yourself well online and some of the ways that can be done.

Their Culture

We teach kids that have no concept of a world without the Internet. Technology is a ubiquitous part of their world. They want and expect to use it at home. For me to deny that technology and what it allows them to do would be like asking someone from an earlier generation to learn without a pen or pencil. It just wouldn’t make sense.

Student Conferences

When we have student-led conferences in my classroom, my students use what is posted on their blog as the starting point of our conversation with their parents.  Their moms and dads are already familiar with what is posted, and the students are able to focus on sharing what their goals were, what they feel they are doing well and what they want to get better at.

Student Choice

Allowing students to have some choice in what they create/post is important on so many levels.  It empowers the students and involves them in their own learning. We teach students who have a plethora of choices as to how they spend their time. In addition to the choices children previously had, they can choose from many types of gaming, hundreds of television channels or video on demand.  It only makes sense to give them a sense of choice as to how they show their learning as well.

An online portfolio gives those choices. Students can choose which of the many tools available will best help them to show their learning. Paper is not always the best way to communicate your ideas.


I will never forget the delight in one of my student’s eyes who had just had a working computer in his home the night before for the first time that school year. “Mrs. Cassidy, I showed my blog to my parents last night. I showed them all my stuff! They liked it!”

That moment of joy was worth the few extra minutes it takes to post my student’s articles online.  I know that, although I don’t always hear about it, that moment is repeated over and over in the homes of all of my students, as they are able to share their learning with their parents at home.

Joy is the best reason I use digital portfolios with my young students. We can all use a little more joy.



“I Guess We Really Like the iPads!”

Because I was fortunate enough to win a contest from Best Buy Canada, I got to go on a $20 000 shopping spree last week to purchase technology for my classroom.  I chose to buy iPads.  Being 1:1 with some sort of device has long been a dream of mine, a dream I was ecstatic to fulfill!

Day One of 1:1

Friday was the big day—the iPads finally arrived in our classroom. To say my students were excited would be a bit of an understatement, but then, so was their teacher.

I don’t want the iPads to just change the way we do things in my classroom.  I want them to be transformative.  That is, I don’t want to use the iPads to just do things we could have done on paper.  An app should not just be a glorified worksheet. I want them to allow us to connect and to work and learn differently.  I hope that will happen more and more as time goes on.

Our First App

But for this first day, it was all about fun and about learning some of the possibilities of these new tools.  For our first app, I chose Letter Reflex.  Almost every child in my classroom is still struggling in their reading to consistently identify b’s and d’s. If you teach kindergarten or first grade, you know this is pretty common.  The Letter Reflex app allows students to tilt the iPad to select a b,d, p or q, adding a kinesthetic aspect to learning letters.  The students loved the game, and I hope they’ll go back to it often.  With so many students trying the game at once, hearing the voice on the app proved to be difficult, so everyone ran to get their headphones.  Success, engagement and learning—but no transformation yet.

Creating with the iPads

We next moved to Brushes, a drawing app that was recommended to me by Giulia Forsythe. It is more pricy than some other drawing apps that I could have chosen, but my students spend most of the year learning to read and write something that is readable to people who are not first grade teachers. They show their learning much more often through a drawing than through text.    I wanted them to have a great tool that will allow them to show their learning effectively through drawing if that is their choice.  The students used this tool to make (and to decorate) the number of their iPad. (I numbered them for organizational purposes.) I helped them to make a screenshot of their drawing, and to set these numbers as their wallpaper and home screen image.  I saw this as a higher thinking skill—the students were creating rather than consuming—but not yet transformative.

While the students were not complaining about the restrictiveness of the activities we had done so far, they really wanted to explore on their own, so I let them do just that.  Some of them gravitated to games that we had had on the two original iPads that were in our classroom.  Others returned to Letter Reflex. Still others began to explore the other enticingly coloured squares they saw on their iPad.  They were so engaged, that we all forgot to watch the clock for our gym time (a practically sacred time for my mostly male learners) and missed it entirely.

Taking Pictures–The Highlight

In the afternoon, we had a chat via Skype with a second grade class in Wisconsin about a project we are doing together called A View From the Window.  Afterwards, the students and I talked about how we would show them our view. Would we make a movie…draw pictures…take pictures?  The students felt that we needed to use a camera, not drawings, so we grabbed our iPads to figure out the camera app. This app is very intuitive, and the students only needed some support to tuck the cover into the back of our cases so that it would not block the camera.

This was their favorite part of the day. We agreed to wait until a sunny day to take pictures out the window for the project, but they joyously took picture after picture of the view from the window, objects in our classroom and each other taking pictures.  It was amazing how many pictures some of them were able to take in a few short minutes.  One student had dozens of pictures, including sixteen pictures of a computer mouse.  Lots of fun, and then, it was time to teach them how to delete unwanted pictures. The student with the most pictures quietly admitted to me that he had taken “too many pictures” and I showed him how to delete them more quickly. The students kept only those photos that they really liked. Most of the students emptied their photo gallery.  For them, the fun was in the taking—not yet in the sharing.  Sharing pictures—now perhaps that will begin to be more transformative.

My favorite comment from the day was from one of the boys when we realized that our time in the gym had already evaporated while we were so engaged.  “Mrs. Cassidy, I guess we really like the iPads”, he said.

I guess they do!  We’ll keep on working to make this technology transformative as well as engaging.



Kids Teaching Kids

For a long time, I’ve known that kids learn best from other kids, and I’ve tried to incorporate this into what we do in my classroom.

Last year, I taught what I thought were some great lessons about the difference between needs and wants.  At the end of the unit, I asked the students to use a Common Craft-style video to show the difference between the two. They all got to work and took turns video-taping each other.

When I reviewed the videos, it was clear to me that despite my brilliant teaching, three of my students obviously did not yet understand the concept. Instead of re-teaching the needs and wants unit, I instead chose to show these three students some of the completed videos from the students who HAD understood the concept.

It was like the lights came on.

In no time, those three students were able to create a new video that showed me that they, too, understood what the difference was between the two ideas.  Just by seeing and hearing their peers explain it.

Teaching in Flu Season

Last week flu season hit my classroom in a big way. That, combined with extreme windchills  of -43C  (-45F) meant very few children at school.  One day I had only eight students in the morning and sent two of those home ill through the day. Starting anything new seemed ridiculous, so among other things, we spent some time reviewing silent e at the end of a word.

I asked those students who were present to be the teachers for those who couldn’t be there. Each of my students made a video (again using a Common Craft style—it works SO well for young children) to show how a silent e changes a word.

The students were all motivated by the idea of being the instructors.  They worked hard on their “props” and even harder to get their images in the right place for the video. (We finally had to put strips of masking tape on the tabletop to indicate where the camera would be recording.)

Hopefully, most of my students will be back next week. Their peers are eager to let their videos help to teach. And kids can once again learn from other kids. I know it works.

On Being Learners and Being Teachers

One afternoon last week, my students were the teachers. They were the ones who “knew” and they shared what they knew with people who “didn’t know”.  It was a moment when the roles were switched.   It was a moment when I knew that the things we had been talking about all year– about all of us being learners together and about learning from each other–had finally been internalized. It was the moment when I knew that they understood.

Last week, my students talked via Skype with the teaching staff of an elementary school in Colorado.  Jill Fisch, who coordinated the call, asked my students to help her show Skype to her staff.  Jill gave us the two excellent questions in advance:

1.  Why do you Skype with other people/classes?

2.  What are some cool things you have learned when you have Skyped others?

When we discussed the questions prior to the call, it was my students’ answers to the first question about why we use Skype that blew me away.  Four separate students gave me these reasons:

  • Because we learn.
  • Because we get to meet new people.
  • Because we help other people to learn.
  • Because we don’t have to go to their town to talk to people.
I can’t think of better reasons to use Skype.  This particular Skype call was one of those events in which they helped others to learn. My kids WERE the teachers and they knew it.
Out of the mouths of (almost) babes.

It’s Your Choice…You Choose

 I have been thinking a lot about the importance of choice lately.  Recently, I ran into the parent of a child I previously taught, and it reminded me of a moment when I gave an answer to her child that I now regret.

Last spring, at the end of a unit of study about plants, I asked my students, as a culminating project,  to make an artifact of some kind to show their learning.  We wanted to put this artifact on our blog, so we talked about several tools that they could use to show their learning. I no longer remember all of the options, but I know they included writing an article for their blog, drawing a picture to post on their blog, making a book using Storybird and making a video using Sketchcast.  I wanted them to have a choice of what was best for them to use.

One boy came up to me to ask if he could use Vocaroo, the voice recording tool we were using that year.  To my shame, I said “no”.  I think my reasoning was that I wanted him to have the opportunity to practice using text, and all of the other options could have included written words.

What you need to know about this child is that although he is verbally bright, he has a severe text disability, so severe that he could recognize only about 20 words by the end of grade one.  Obviously, anything involving text brings him great frustration.

Fortunately, it did not take long for me to come to my senses and assure this child that using a voice recording of his learning was indeed an option for him, but my shame in my moment of realization made a deep impact on me.

I will never forget our short conversation because of my emotional response and because it made me stop and re-evaluate what I was doing as a teacher who says she values choice.  All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and while it is important for us (and our students) to work on those things that we are not good at, it is also important for us to have a chance to show our learning using a medium that can help us to best capture that knowledge.

If the choices don’t include all students in a way that is relevant to them, is it really choice?

Using Video to Capture Learning

I’m currently at the iT summit in Saskatoon.  Yesterday I did a presentation called Just Point and Shoot:  Using Video to Capture Learning. My emphasis was on the capturing, not on a polished final product.  I find that I am using video more and more  to help my students share their learning.  The students love using video because even those who do not yet write well can explain and demonstrate their learning and there is then the opportunity to watch themselves over and over again.  I love it because this watching reinforces the concept that they need to learn.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth at least a million.

The wiki for my presentation includes the slide deck I used.  Because the presentation was coming up, I decided to stretch myself and learn a bit about video editing.  With thanks to Dean Shareski for showing me the basics, here is my first attempt at an edited video.  I used it at the end of my presentation.


Learning Networks: My Thinking Thoughts

Kelly Christopherson asked a good question to his Twitter network recently. He asked, “How has your definition of PLN changed since you joined a social network?”  Here are my thinking thoughts.


My school division has been supporting PLC’s for several years.  For the first few years, teachers could choose what to focus on and who to focus on it with.  I spent a lot of time with some other grade one teachers from other schools, dissecting our Language Arts Curriculum, and creating rubrics that sifted through the gobblety-gook and helped to measure standards that were originally written in very imprecise language.   It was a stretching, but satisfying and practical group to be a part of.  Unfortunately, not everyone found these opportunities for learning to be as helpful as I did.  Because some people were not taking advantage of the time, more restrictions were created about where and with whom you should have your PLC.  During the next school year, all PLC’s will be held with staff at our own school, on one of two school division approved topics.


While I appreciate the time to and value of getting together with other members of my staff and discussing ways that we can work together to improve instruction, I feel that my primary learning comes not from my discussions with them, but from my online interaction.


 PLC’s Shouldn’t Be Limited in Time or Place

While I see the other members of my school-based PLC every day, we only discuss our PLC topic in any significant way a few times a year.  On the other hand, I am in contact with the thoughts of people in my online network almost every day.  If I have a question or an opinion, I can count on others to answer or set me straight.  I get input from other teachers every day instead of at pre-ordained times.  It can be early in the morning or late at night and is not limited to being in a building at the same time as someone else.  Many times, I know that there is no one in my school who can answer the question that I have, but I know just the person in another province or country who will know the answer and who will happily answer it, just as I would if I had an answer for them.


PLC’s Can Include Diverse Thoughts

Through online contacts such as my RSS feeds and Twitter (well, sometimes), I am exposed to the thoughts and ideas of people who are really thinking about education and change in a way that I never would without their prompting.  They daily challenge my opinion and help me to be a better teacher.  I am a “how-to” thinker and, like most primary teachers, including those in my school-based PLC, I think in practicalities rather than in big ideas.  My online network allows me to be exposed to those ideas and thinking about how I can use them.


The Topic Doesn’t Have to be Prescribed or Even Clearly Stated

While I understand the reason for prescribing the topic of our school-based PLC’s (data), there are a lot of other things that I want to learn about.  I guess this is the difference between the “P” standing for “Professional” and “Personal”.  At school the topic of discussion is set and we are expected to report to the superintendent what we have discussed and what we will discuss the next time. In my personal learning, I can switch my learning topic with the movement of a finger and come back to a previous topic whenever I want to.


So there you are, Kelly.    My thinking thoughts.  My online learning wins hands down.  

What Would You Do With Ninety-Nine Years?

My grandfather has filled those years with learning. 


When he retired from farming, he decided to take up pottery.  He bought himself a kiln and a potter’s wheel, and taught himself how to do it.  After awhile he wanted to try something new, so he took up wood carving.  The items he carved weren’t simple, basic shapes, but animals and people.  He learned what kinds of wood worked best and how to look at the wood and see its potential.  Many carvings later, he decided to look into building bird houses and butterfly houses.  He confided to me that people would actually pay up to fifty dollars for one of the butterfly houses and smirked as he said that that gave him enough money to get the materials for two or three more.  


He wondered what it was like to tap maple trees and get syrup.  He tired that and was successful.  The next year he decided to try it with poplar trees, which are much more plentiful in our area.  This, too, was successful.  Growing giant pumpkins, raising fish, gardening — all things he has learned to do since his “retirement”.


A few years ago, when he was already in his nineties, he asked for and received a spinning wheel for Christmas.  He got some wool from one of his grandchildren who raises sheep, and taught himself how to card it and spin it into yarn.  Then, he needed something to do with the yarn, so he learned how to knit.


At his birthday party last night, I asked him what he would like to do next.  “Paint”, was his response. 


I think his interest in learning is part of the secret of his longevity.  What an example of a life-long learner for all of his many, many descendents. 


Happy birthday, Grandpa!  I can’t wait for your 100th next year.


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