On perseverance…

On Tuesday I took the afternoon off to finish my Japanese Encephalitis immunizations. Yes, it took the whole afternoon  – more a lesson in patience than perseverance as I waded through the Taiwanese medical system. But, this post is not about my experience. It is about what happened in my classroom while I was gone.

I’ve been going through some Park City Mathematics Institute materials and came across a Painted Cube problem. I left it for my 6th grade students.

We’ve been looking at patterns and representations through sketches, words, tables and graphs. I set the room up so that each pair of students had the problem, a large whiteboard and lots of whiteboard marker colors. The teacher who supervised my students let me know that he was impressed at how the students worked. They talked, they drew, they problem solved and they kept at it! For an hour.

At the beginning of the year, they would have put 10 minutes max into a challenging problem and called it quits. This week, they did it for 60 minutes. I told them that they are awesome!


Research Phase: Google Research Tool

Last, I wrote how gDocs has greatly helped my students collaborate with each other and how it has also helped me work with them during class time.  A second issue that middle school students (and I would wager much older students) struggle with is to keep track of sources. Like hummingbirds that flit from flower to flower, they bounce from web page to web page. An idea is poached from one place, snagged from another, linked from another and when it’s all said and done, they have no idea where information came from.

Earlier this year, I read a post (I think it was by Richard Byrne but I’m not positive)  on the Google Research Tool. Tucked under the “Tools” tab, the Research button opens up a new pane within the document that a student is working in. I modeled with students – we are discussing environmental problems and it turns out a massive coal powered plant is in their back yard. They had no idea! Opening up a new document, I showed how to get the research screen.

Untitled document - Google Drive (1)The research pane allows students to conduct a search directly from the document they are working on, but a few additional features make it work better for students.


Hovering over an interesting search result gives several options:

1. Preview: this will open the web page on another tab so the student can decide whether or not it is useful.

2. Insert Link: this places the link of the webpage into the student’s document.

3. Cite – this creates a footnote. Awesome! In my example, a footnote of 1 was placed beside Taichung Power Plant. In the document’s footer, the following text (linked to the source page) was automatically inserted:

“Taichung power plant world’s worst polluter: survey – Taipei Times.” 2008. 19 Apr. 2013 <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2008/09/04/2003422196>

I encourage my students to make a brief write-up of each source as they work. They include important details and how the source helps the ideas they are developing. Later, the list of sources at the bottom can be turned into a citation page if necessary.

A recent teacher conversation I observed went along the lines of my students can’t do research. They just type everything into Google and hope for the best.

As teachers, we need to take a step back and realize if it is not us giving students the skills to research and use technology, who is? Somewhere along the line, “old school” book research and index cards got left on the curb. Those skills were taught, though as a student I admit it was quite painful. In many situations, a replacement was not put into place. The web is there. Go research. Students still need to be taught how to use the vast resources available to them.

I like the citation feature of the gResearch tool because it is easy for students to begin developing habits of crediting sources and keeping track of information flow. I currently teach science and math but it is my responsibility to help students now what tools can help them in an academic setting.

Research Phase: Using Google Docs

Shawn Cornally at ThinkThankThunk advocates for a great departure from the standard classroom. I like his thoughts but sometimes question if I’m ready for the big leap. My class has become much more project /inquiry based though students move through the content in unison. I’m not sure how to fully open the door. The current Invention Convention project my students are working on hopes to tap into the interests of students. Project problems are selected and students are now in the research phase.

Computer time + students = black hole of productivity? Do you get the feeling that turning students loose in a computer lab can be a possible recipe for lost time? In the past, students logged onto computers and I did my best to bounce around the room checking in with individuals to discuss ideas. At times, I might reach a group only once during a class and if I was lucky twice. Who knows what the others were doing when I visited groups on the other side of the room. Yes, if the project is truly engaging students continue working without monitoring – that’s at least what I kept telling myself. But, and here’s the true catch, my students in grade 6 – 8 really are not sure how to keep moving along with research. Somewhere inside their minds they wonder what is a good site to visit – I know we’ve talked about this, but…, what information should I write down – everything written on this page is exactly what I want, aargh, this project is soooooo long.

Google Docs has helped tremendously. A student group shares one document among group members. Gone are issues surrounding lost files, incompatible formats…They also share the document with me.

Research Ideas - Google DriveAs students work, I monitor each group’s progress. Questions are asked, suggestions given and students know that I am there with them.

I can provide a comment and students can respond immediately or wait until they have the mental space to get back with me. Instead of putting a halt on their work to have a conversation about their progress, I can see what has been accomplished and encourage or nudge. Since my comments are embedded in the chat window or in the text, students can also keep referring instead of forgetting everything that was discussed the moment I walked away.

An interesting side effect is the sound generated during class. I remember having to excuse myself from group conversations to ask the rest of the class to lower voices to a reasonable level. Now, a productive hum permeates through the class as more students are on task.

There has been a lot of recent conversation on the twitterblogosphere about the role of technology. Technology is not curriculum. Technology is not the building block around which to construct a unit/lesson. Technology does allow for collaboration in different ways. Whiteboards are great but when the work becomes more text based, share a document! Using gDocs can help me see the process. What are students doing as they work? How are they using their time? Where are they getting stuck? I want to see more of how technology is allowing for better collaboration and feedback; not more lists of the 20+ apps I absolutely need to have to make a 21st Century classroom.

Invention Convention

As I moved from the Sunnyside Environmental School, I packed a tradition in my suitcase – the Invention Convention. This project comprised a portion of Earth Day celebrations and students throughout the grades in the K-8 school worked on a wide array of ideas. On the day of the “convention” the gym was converted to a display hall and projects filled up the space. I loved walking through and seeing the different ideas. My class of middle school students teamed up with our 1st/2nd grade buddy class to tour the projects. The little ones bounced with excitement to show their middle school buddies their work and, in turn, would oh and ah at the big kids’ work. I enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm and brought it along when I moved. Though my current school isn’t one to get behind large curricular initiatives, I am the sole middle school science teacher so students all work on this project at the same time. I encourage students to work outside of their grade level and each year a few cross the line to work with others.

We are just kicking off the project. I’ve shown a few inspiring videos of kids their age making great inventions for their community:

Note: William’s story is being made into a full length documentary that is scheduled for release sometime this year. For more information, go to the documentary site.

A second great video is the TED talk of Richard Turere: My invention that made peace with the lions.

Here is my current assignment – as always any comments would be greatly appreciated. I’m flying solo on the integration of a Standards-based reporting system and project-based learning. The night is dark on this flight…

Students submitted the problems they are working on. Here’s the list – I’m looking forward to see the solutions and inventions!

  • People cut down lots of trees at the mountain area, and when it rains the rocks will start moving down very fast through the slope of the mountain. The rocks will destroy many things when erosion happens.
  • Many people around the world do not have enough clean water to drink, so they drink “dirty” water. The people who drink dirty water might get sick and die.
  • People all over the world are wasting batteries that can be re-used and causes more trash to the world. Batteries that are thrown away are dangerous because they might destroy farmlands, destroy crops and might increase the mutation rate.
  • There is too much trash on Earth. Anywhere you put it is still taking up space. Incinerators cause pollution and often trash gets dumped in the most inconvenient locations. It is a growing problem.
  • In Taiwan, typhoons arrive in the summer when fruits are starting to ripen. Strong winds and rain causes the fruit to fall off the tree and rot, making profits low for farmers. (Jan & Andy)
  • 75% of Earth is covered by water but only 2% of fresh water can be used. So if people keep wasting soon there will be no fresh water so we have to save water.
  • Mosquito bites are a great issue for our school and the whole world. Some mosquitoes even carry lethal diseases.
  • Batteries are used as power sources everywhere around the world, especially alkaline batteries. But such batteries waste energy when they lie unused.
  • Humans dump trash in the ocean. This normally results in sea animals being hurt, killed or even poisoned by the plastic in the trash.
  • In cities, private transportation is causing pollution and wasted resources. First of all, private vehicles gives us a great need for fuel and in the making of fuel we pollute the world.
  • Pollution is one of the world’s main issue, which came from the modern society we have right now that are made by human beings. Pollution from large factories, smoke from the vehicles, chimneys and burning of woods are all examples of pollution that are made by us. Our group is focusing on the smoke that the vehicles are making.

Dragon Unit: a recap

Posts are long overdue. I’ve been in an odd mental-educator state that I am sorting out and will soon get around to writing about. At the same time, classroom activities continued along at a good rate. In January, I posted Enter the Dragon as my teaching partner and I

began a unit integrating Language Arts, Math and Science.  The project ended on a high note just before Spring Break with a culminating event.

Students presented the unit to their parents. The class is small and all but one student had a family representative at the event – in many instances several came to support friends/family. So, what went well and what needs to be thought of for future integrated projects?

During this project, students completed two major items:  a Dragonology book and a 3D dragon.

In the book, students presented their dragon research and genetics work. Students began by researching differences in eastern and western dragons and associated stories. 

Why would they do this?

We wrapped the unit up inside the framework of the students being recently selected dragon riders who needed to learn about the history and life of dragons. As they researched, information slowly trickled in that dragons would be arriving and the hope would be to breed different dragons. Students chose parent dragons. As the future dragon riders

identified key traits, they began talking about their hopes as the “mother” and “father” dragons were crossed. Chromosomes were modeled on student-created Popsicle sticks that allowed them to physically cross various genes. In this example, the student had some challenges with concepts of chromosome pairs as he selected only one from this dragon.

At the same time, students created 2-dimensional floor plans for a dragon habitat building based upon research of each dragon’s preferred setting. Given a space allotment, they created an area using a variety of geometric shapes.

Eventually, the big day came and the genotype of each student’s baby dragon was determined. As the code was developed, students began sketching out their baby dragon. It was great to hear them voice excitement as a trait they wanted – i.e. fire breathing – became a reality or give a little groan as a trait they hoped to obtain – i.e. wings – did not materialize. The baby dragons led students into the final component of the project : creating the dragons.

The celebration was rapidly approaching as students began working with glue guns and cardboard to turn their phenotype sketches into a reality. Students began by drawing nets to design the various features of their dragons. Then, students constructed a 3-D dragon. Using the Tin Men post by Julie Reulbach as inspiration, the major challenge was to calculate total surface area to cover the dragon in its skin (some students then decorated

over top the skin). The “skin” was cut from a length of tissue paper. Students provided me with the length of paper given a fixed width and used this amount to cover their dragons. Some hit it almost perfectly and those that did not were given the opportunity to go back through their calculations and determine where they made a mistake. The mistake needed to match up with the surface area not covered.

That’s the project in an over-simplified nutshell. My intent had been to regularly post to capture the great writing, problem solving and discussions throughout but I was in a writing funk. Overall, the students were engaged and I believe a lot of learning took place.

At the same time…

  • I’m still searching for that sweet spot in project-based learning. A voice whispers in my mind that too much time was spent on a product. The books and model took a considerable amount of time outside of strong processing. Students problem solved but then had to go through the motions of gluing and the students who wanted a great looking product spent lots of outside time. Yet, is this “down” time an important part of the process as well? Do students need the apparent mindless work that allows their minds to work on upcoming details? Are there many intangibles in the act of creating a dragon that I don’t realize?
  • I lost the story. A successful storyline is chockfull of incidents that keep students in character. I know that I was not as present as I could have been and that my partner and I did not meet enough to create a strong story. In the end many students still considered themselves as students working on a project instead of dragon riders finishing an important task.
  • Feedback needs to at a higher level. Students got bogged down in the creation of pages for their book and I made the mistake of waiting until all were done with a certain type of page before responding. This resulted in that students did not get timely feedback throughout the project.

Parent events and celebrations are crucial to extended projects. At home, parents watch their students struggle on extended projects. Though a lot of time was given in class, many students went beyond requirements and worked on their dragons and books during spare time. Not only do culminating events give a real need to have projects finished by a certain point, they also give true closure. Parents rejoice in their student’s achievements while giving internal (or in a few cases out loud) sighs of relief as a project closes. It’s great to see the students flip through their work and explain to their parents and the parents of their peers.