Monday, September 15, 2008


For my school's after-school program I will be teaching the book Matilda by Roald Dahl. I developed a unit to go with the book because I wanted to focus my teaching. I can be lazy when it comes to reading. I love to read, don't care so much about giving worksheets. My focus was to create a unit that allowed my students to really get into the novel, and allow me to have them learn some important skills.

I plan to put my unit online using Google docs and will be posting it for you to use if you see fit. You will also be able to modify it fit your needs.

To begin with, I create a booklet that is bound with a comb binder. I use card stock for the front and back cover to give the book more protection. I also like to use colored paper in the booklet. Usually I use a different color for each separate smaller unit. This makes it much easier for my students to find the page we are working on.

The first page of my unit is a settings page. I have my students identify the setting for each chapter. It may be overkill for them to identify the time and place of each chapter, but I really want them to learn the skill.

The second page of my unit is a page devoted to describing character traits of some of the main characters. I believe that great stories have characters that the author makes you care about. I will have my students continually update the character traits throughout the novel. This can lead to great discussions on how some characters like Miss Honey change through the story, while others like the Trunchbull don't.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What is Wrong with Our Parent/Teacher Organization?

Last night we had our first parent/teacher meeting of the year. Out of almost 400 students enrolled we only had 14 adults show up. This includes teachers, parents, and teachers who are parents.

This has been a continuous problem for many years. Despite letters home, having meetings piggyback on other activities that bring parents in, and lots of pleading there has been no real progress.

We also have a major problem getting teachers active. Although there is a small group of us that regularly attend. Usually teachers only show up when they want something. It became so bad that the organization passed a rule that requires teachers to attend several meetings before they can request something. This doesn't work, because the principal usually asks for them when they don't show.

Our community is obviously apathetic to the organization, but they will show up for sporting events and music programs. They can be there, they choose not to. I have even suggested the principal require teachers create a small program with their class to encourage parents to show, but they (I have had several) don't want to require teachers to attend.

I would love to get some advice from you. What does your organization do to attract parents? What things has your organization done to encourage parents to attend? What can we do to solve this problem?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why Student Blogging Can't Work in the Classroom

For over a year now I have been using my class blog for a way to assess my students' learning. First I used my blog posts as a way to ask a short answer question and had my students give me an answer using comments. Finally last spring I created blogs for my home room and aggregated their posts into a single blog.

Typically when I have my students post I allow them 20-25 minutes to write their response. The students are never surprised by the question, they are always based specifically on something covered in class. If they know the answer to the question, the time is more than enough for them to answer. If they don't know the answer, they don't have enough time to do research to find it. Since I have a 1:2 student computer ratio this takes one class period to have every student respond.

I realized pretty quickly that my students were not getting the most out of the experience. The reason people blog is for the community, the give and take of posting and commenting on posts. My students didn't have that opportunity. I wanted them to have that opportunity.

In the spring I created individual blogs for my homeroom class. I wanted them to post and have other students comment on their posts. I made a mistake and did not give them time to spend commenting on each others blogs. The students that took time to make comments were very encouraging, but I realized my mistake and decided that I must create time for my students to comment on the posts.

Now I have come to the point where I realize that student blogging won't work. When my students write answers to my questions, they should already know the answers. The time they are given is simply the time it takes to respond. This would be similar to an in class assignment. How long should it take to comment on another students post? I want my students to think critically about the response they are commenting on. I want them to address their thoughts coherently. How much time will this take?

If I truly believe that posting online is a better option than answering on paper, then I better have a reason. The reason is because the size of the audience increases and the ability to provide feedback also increases. If I think students commenting on other students' posts is what makes blogging the best tool, then I must give them time to do it. I must also provide time for the students to read the responses and respond to them if necessary. Now a 25 minute assignment done once or twice a week has become a 75+ minute excercise. This amounts to one quarter of time my students spend in class each week. Worse still, because I have a 2:1 ratio I can only have half my class online at a time.

What do you think? Is it worth the extra time? Should I have my students post less often? Or, should I give them the time necessary to do it right?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Deconstruction of The Biome Project

I was reading a post by Elaine Plybon on her blog Cruel Shoes. On her post:
Teaching Truth #7: Bells and Whistles to You May be Same Old to Your Students she asks the question, "...teachers must really look at the technology, say “is this the best way to deliver this instruction?” and know what they are doing." This made me think about the number of times I have talked to other teachers about things I am doing in my classroom without ever explaining why I choose to do it the way I do. So, I decide that I should write this post and explain how and why I came up with the idea for The Biome Project.

My original idea was driven by the need to give my students a learning experience that they could get really interested in. There was only two weeks of school left and I knew if I didn't have enough time to introduce something new so I decided to review some of the learning they had from fourth grade. I know students like animals and therefor I chose to go with biomes. I would use biomes to teach biotic and abiotic factors.

I also wanted my students to give an oral presentation of what they learned, and I wanted them to make a physical representation of the biome they researched. I decided to have students create representations of their biomes using cut paper, which I use every year for a weather cycle assessment, or dioramas. This allowed for students to have a choice between how they created their representations.

We had used Voicethread before and many of my students liked to work with the medium. They could narrate their project without having to stand up in front of the class. This allowed students that did not feel comfortable in front of the class a choice. I decided that students would use Voicethread if they chose to use cut paper. I thought two dimensional representations would work better for Voicethread.

Creating video in my classroom is a pretty normal experience and I knew that many students like to be in front of the camera. I chose to have those students make the dioramas. I gave them a pointer to use so they would not be covering the camera and they could point out what they needed to.

Another option I gave them, but one I eventually dropped, was creating travel brochures. I have used this before when I taught my reading unit on the book "Holes" by Louis Sachar. The students were to use the brochures to describe the biotic and abiotic factors for a biome that could be visited. They were to also give an oral presentation that would be video recorded.

I used video and online resources to introduce the biomes we were studying as well as what biotic and abiotic factors could be found in them. Of course I wrote a blog post on the class blog linking the biomes for my students to refer to.

When I gave my students the assignment I created a document using Google Docs. In it I explained the assignment and gave them more links for them to explore. Unfortunately, due to time I decided that creating the travel brochures was too ambitious and so I dropped it as an option. I chose to put the assignment on Google Docs instead of just adding it to the blog because I wanted my students to become aware that it could be used to create word documents that could be accessed online. Hopefully this is something they can remember for future use.

I took pictures of my students working on their projects and created an Animoto video. This is an example of my using technology. This can be a very good motiviation tool because the students know you are taking their picture and it could end up on the blog.

I had given my students a firm date when their projects were due, but I knew that Voicethread can take a lot of time for each student and I only had one computer set up for the students to use. I had students finish their cut paper projects early and I had them do their Voicethreads as they completed them and this helped keep away from a big wait for the computer.

Finally, on the day the dioramas were due I set up a web cam using my laptop and Ustream, a streaming webcam site that I use to stream live video from my classroom every day. Ustream has a record function which I used to record the videos. After a quick briefing of what I wanted them to do, the students stepped up and gave their presentations. Although a few students mixed up biotic and abiotic factors, I thought that overall presentations were excellent.

I created a blog that I linked to the class blog called The Biome Project. I spent a couple hours adding the Voicethreads and the Ustream videos to the blog and tagging them so the students could find them easily. (I did have difficulty with the Ustream videos because of some left out code, but I figured out what I needed to add to the code to make it work. I had the same problem before and that saved me a lot of trouble shooting time.)

There are several lessons I took away from this project. One, students like to have options with their work. Two, students work harder and produce better work when they know there is a larger audience than the peers in their room. Three, although students only directly used technology for research and Voicethread, the technology was a driving part of the assignment. The last thing I learned which has had a big impact on what I want to do is that students need time and access to critically assess each others project. This year all my students will be expected to not only post on a blog, but to comment critcally on other students blogs.

I hope this walk through of the unit helps you think critically about what how you use technology in the classroom. Remember, always use the best tool to meet your students' needs.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why Don't We Aggregate Class Blogs Too?

I have been looking through my own blog roll and I noticed that the blogs I follow are not classroom blogs. I understand and appreciate the need to read blogs created by educators for educators. What I don't understand is why I don't subscribe to classroom blogs that can give me insight into what is actually being done in the classroom.

I am on the hunt for class blogs that I can subscribe to in my aggregator. If you know a class blog that is updated regularly, I would love for you to give me the url. Please don't link to sites that have lists of class blogs. I want you to recommend blogs that you look at on a regular basis.

Is Fluency Important?

The University of Oregon has a few web pages devoted to fluency. The explanation is that fluency allows students the ability to focus on the meaning of the word, but only when word calling is automatic. This means that students understand what they read better when they are not having to sound out the words. If you accept this conclusion, the next step is to ask, "How do I teach fluency?"

I don't remember being taught fluency. I do remember reading along as my teacher read to me. I remember rereading stories over and over again. I even remember doing round-robin reading. I think all these are pretty good strategies. I think that our reading series are obvious ways to teach fluency, if for no other reason than we only have one story a week and can cover it several times and in several ways.

What strategies do you use to teach fluency? Do you think it is an important skill?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Be a Whina and Compare Us to China!

After leaving a comment on Dr. Scott McLeod's blog Dangerously Irrelevant referencing Jeff Utecht's blog The Thinking Stick I decided to write my own post on response. Below is my comment that I left.

I think the point is moot. Does it really matter what we are doing in comparison to other schools in other countries? The conversation that needs to take place is, "What is the purpose of our schools?" In the United States today, nobody can answer that question, because we as a society have not decided. We cannot expect our schools to direct our students toward a goal we have not set.

I have heard some say the purpose of education is to get kids ready for the marketplace. Others say it is to create well rounded individuals. We all espouse the goal of creating lifelong learners. Which is it? Are there better goals for education than these?

There have been many books, many ideas floating through the edublogosphere lately, The Wisdom of Crowds, A Whole New Mind, The World is Flat, but they haven't answered the question either. They are more likely to confuse it. We need to work harder in math and science because we aren't producing enough engineers. We need to develop creativity if we are to compete. This is all wonderful, thought provoking stuff, but it still doesn't answer the question.

Now No Child Left Behind has focused my school and many others to work towards a test that measures memorization instead of application. Is this the goal our schools should strive for? Does this represent the wisdom of the educational crowd?

I love the mental stimulation of the conversations we have on the internet, but I don't think any of them compares in importance to answering the simple question of, "What is the purpose of our school?"

I would love to read your comments on my take.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Creating Individual Blogs vs. Co-Authoring One Blog

I am trying to decide if I should create sixty blogs for my students to use or have them co-author one blog. I guess I need to consider the pros and cons of each.

Pros of each student having their own blogs:
1. Students get to change themes to reflect their personality.
2. Students can add widgets to their blog they choose.
3. Students feel pride when their cluster map shows people visiting.
4. Students can continue to use their blog after they move to 6th grade.

Cons of each student having their own blogs:
1. Set up time is huge.
2. I have to spend time checking students blogs to make sure the widgets are
3. Some students never change anything on their blogs.
4. Most of last years students have not posted on their blogs since my last assignment.
5. The way I have our blog aggregator set up, when a student changes a post the changes do not get updated on the aggregated blog.

Pros of having a co-authored blog:
1. Set up time is much smaller.
2. When a student modifies a post, it automatically updates the aggregated blog.
3. I don't need to spend time showing students how to change things or how to keep
their blog safe.

Unknowns of a co-authored blog.
1. Don't know how many people can be creating new posts on the blog at one time.

I think I will try to set up the co-authored blog and see how it works. The time saving by itself makes it very appealing. I can always show students that want to create their own blog how to do it without having to spend important instruction time on it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I Stream Video

Ever since I started streaming video of my classroom at using Ustream people have asked me why. It really started as a lark. I was in another teacher's room helping her with a tech problem when I saw a internet cam sitting in her drawer. I asked her what she was using it for and she told me that she had it because of a satellite class that was going to be held in her room that had not panned out. I asked her if I could borrow it and she told me I could have it. I skipped back to me room wondering how I could use my new toy.

After I got it up and running, which took considerable effort because I didn't have any software to install so I had to find some streaming software to use, I showed my class that I could stream video. At the time it was simply something new and interesting to share with my class.

After hearing about two streaming services on a Leo Laporte podcast I decided to check them out. I looked at and I thought they both looked really complicated, but finally chose Ustream because it seemed a little easier to figure out. (I think it still is easier, although Stickam has some compelling tools that you can use too.)

After messing around with Ustream I discovered I could record video. Now I can see a reason to use the webcam, I can record stuff we do in class for the blog. I really like the idea of digital records for my students. Unfortunately, I discovered a big problem. The web cam did not have a built in microphone. So, I can record video, but I can't record audio. Once again I ran into a roadblock.

A few weeks passed and I put making video's out of my mind. Soon I received a digital camera that could take video (lousy video) that I could use so I now had no reason to use the web cam.

I don't really know what really made me think of doing the live stream all the time, It may have had something to do with watching videos of Steve Spangler doing science experiments. Surely watching Chris Pirillo taking skype calls on his net show was part of it. I know some of the seeds were planted when I read Friedman's The World is Flat and I realized my students needed to think more globally.

Finally, a real reason to stream from my classroom started to form. I wanted to share my classroom with people outside of my school. I wanted my students to show what they were doing to anyone that wanted to see. I wanted a connection to form between my students and the world.

The obvious people coming to watch were parents. Unfortunately, most of my students' parents don't have access to computers on the internet. My video stream to this day is still more likely to be seen by someone outside of the United States thanby a parent of one of my students. That is the reality I face.

The natural extension to this is: What does streaming mean for my class? It is a constant reminder that our world does not end at our city limits. It is the means by which my students come to realize our world is literally an internet connection away. It is my way of showing my students they can more than what my town can offer.

Everything Old is New Again (The Rap on Schoolhouse Rock!)

I pulled out my Schoolhouse Rock! dvd last week in class when I was trying to remediate my class in subjects and predicates. I showed then "The Tale of Mr. Morton" which focuses on subjects and predicates. After going through the video a couple times through which I would stop and point out the subject, Mr. Morton, and the predicate, walked up stairs, my students responded with "Oh" and "I get it!"

The next day I gave them a rather simple assessment of subjects and predicates and all but two failed miserably. Obviously they didn't "get it".

I think music and video are wonderful teaching tools. They can really emphasize points and help with memorization. (We use "The Preamble" to help our students memorize the Preamble to the Constitution which they recite as part of their public speaking requirements.) Unfortunately, they are not necessarily the best tool when it comes to application of material in new situations. I remember watching the Schoolhouse Rock! videos when I was a child, but I can't ever remember using them to help me remember anything in grammar, or any other subject. Is it because I failed to make the connection between Saturday cartoons and Monday learning, or is it that it is simply not a natural thing for kids to make those connections?

Whichever the case is, I now realize that if I want them to apply things they learned, they have to learn the material by applying it. Basic knowledge is important, without it we would not be able to learn new things, but critical thinking comes from application, not memorization. Schoolhouse Rock! and other forms of media have their place in the classroom, but they shouldn't be used as the bridge to travel from basic knowledge to application.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Joplin Globe All-Area Academic Team

Last Thursday I had the honor of attending Joplin Globe's All-Area Academic Team Honor Banquet in Joplin. The night was replete with teachers and students explaining how their relationships helped the students succeed. It was especially wonderful for me to be there because my daughter, Teal, was one of the students selected. Here is a link to the Joplin Globe article.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mad Skillz

Macy went to Honduras and took some pictures while on a mission trip. I made an animoto video for her and then we created a voicethread. I am pleased that I can take something I have learned for use in my class and to help a student create something online.

I particularly like voicethread because it can be so personal and so shareable at the same time.

Reflections on My Student's Blogs Part 2

I have been having my students use their blogs to write fiction stories that coincide with the reading stories from our text. I have been very pleased with some; discouraged by others. I am afraid that once the newness wears off, the joy of writing on the blog will diminish. I have no reason to change this opinion, but I do know that one of my students actually seems to embrace writing on the web. Not only is his volume continuing to increase, but his quality gets better as well.

I keep telling myself, I only have to reach one. Maybe it is him.

Visual Learning

The faculty of our school have been going over the book Classroom Instruction that Works. When I read the chapter on nonlinguistic representation I thought that this would be something I would need to make an emphasis in my classroom. Basically, nonlinguistic representation means using graphic organizers, physical models, pictures, etc. when lecturing or note taking.

I assumed that this style of teaching would really impact the boys in my classroom. I assumed that the girls in my class would be more verbal learners and the boys more tactile or visual.

I decided that I would do a learning styles survey of my students to determine what their learning styles were. I had them take the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire created for North Carolina State's incoming freshman. I had to explain several of the questions to my fifth graders so it took a couple periods to get each class through.

I was really surprised by one of the results that I got back. More than 80% of my students identified themselves in the visual learning style category. (I realize that this is just one test and that the students have to be willing to be honest and think critically before answering the questions, but this is still an overwhelming majority.)

Now I have to ask myself, what do I do with this information? I know that these students have a need that I need to address. I have come up with a few things I can do to help them. I can use more visuals (duh!). I can use colors with my words to separate different topics or ideas. I can create visuals that complement what I say or what they read. I can encourage them to create their own notes using graphic organizers instead of just formal notes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Science Court

I started a Science Court dvd today. It really seemed to interest the students. In the past I have had a tough time getting the students to work in the groups of four required to do the assignment, but I spent extra time today preparing the students for what they needed to do. I think it worked out much better because they really seemed to work well together to get the information.

I really am trying to keep in my mind the capabilities of my students. I always expect them to be able to do things they just don't show me they can do. I spent a lot of time giving the students instructions about how they needed to read their worksheet carefully and then share the information they have with the rest of their group.

If they really "get it" they will be able to do it again tomorrow without being prompted.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Cornell Note Taking

We did two days of Cornell note taking in class. I found that is seemed to help the students find the information in our science books. The system is easy to use and implement and works well when the information is given systematically. I am hoping that I can incorporate this into my class's toolbox.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reflections on My Students' Blogs

My students have been blogging for a few weeks now. They are not quite where I would want them to be at this time. Too many of them are making simple convention mistakes. I remind them to capitalize and use end marks, but they don't even capitalize their own names. I guess I should continue to emphasize the need to use good conventions.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

This is Gratifying

What's Good for the Goose!

While studying Robert Marzano's book Classroom Instruction that Works, I came across a chapter on encouragement.

After thinking about things I do (or more likely don't do) to encourage my students, I stumbled upon an idea. When I found I was a finalist for an Edubloger Award I was extremely excited. I decided to try to give my students that same feeling.

I created the Blogging Tiger award to encourage my students to work hard on their blog posts.

I didn't know how this idea was going over until today. When I told my students that they would be writing a story they were happy. I am fortunate they like to write and share their own stories. When I told them the winner would win a Blogging Tiger Award I was surprised, they really seemed excited. I hope that they really work hard and make me work hard to decide who should win.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Why My Class Blogs

My students have been told that creating content for the web allows people from all over the world to view and critique their work. Although my students have not really internalized the fact that their work will be viewed by people, this photo explains their need for a better understanding.

This poster is hanging in our hallway at school. Notice the problem with conventions? The student did not feel the need to check her work to make sure that it was correct. Why? I suspect it is because they feel no one will notice or care.

I think my students need to know that people do see their work and they do care about the quality. Putting their work on the net should make them more careful about what they do.

I bet the student that created this poster is going to wish she had made sure it was correct!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Slow and Low (that is the tempo)- Beastie Boys

I am not good at long term projects. I have a lot of problems maintaining my momentum and interest. (I think I am ADD!) I want to create podcasts with my students. I want my students to blog regularly. I want my students to create audio/video content that can show their talents. I want the time to do it.

Instead I need to focus on what my students need. They need a purpose for learning other than because I said so. They need to think and they need to produce content that shows what they think. They need to work with their hands, minds, and hearts. They need me to focus on them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Failure Leads to Success (or More Failure)

No matter how hard I try, I cannot make my fifth grade students think like sophomores in high school. I need to remember that my students don't know unless they are taught. I want them to be able to understand what I say without having any experiences for them to draw from.

Regardless of the tools I give them, without practice they won't be able to use them. More practice, more practice, more practice.

Experimenting with Google Apps

For a long time I have tried to find the easy way to create individual blogs for my class. I tried Blogmeister but could never get any response from my emails. I looked at other blog sites to help me find a way to easily create student blogs where what they post is put on a centralized blog. Unfortunately, I could not find what I was looking for.

I decided to suck it up last weekend and go ahead and create blogs on Blogger for my students. I had to get each student an individual email account, but after around 8 addresses, gmail quit on me. It thought I was creating email addresses for spamming. It directed me to Google Apps. To make a long story shorter, I used my web address to create a Google Apps account. It allowed me to quickly and easily create email addresses for my students and therefor get Blogger accounts set up quickly. I will discuss our use of Google Apps as we continue to use them.

I then set up a real messy Rube Goldberg setup that emailed new posts from the students blogs to an email account which through a filter then forwarded them to a blog (Compendium) that I set up. It saves the posts as drafts and then I manually post each to the blog. (For peace of mind I also have all the comments moderated.

My students have been commenting on blog posts I made. The other two fifth grade classes I teach still communicate this way. I really want the students to be able to comment on each others posts. I think that this may force the students to think more critically knowing that their peers are going to be looking at what they say. I will continue discussing this as I learn more about how the students make the blogs their own.

Using Volki

Get a Voki now!

Today I used a talking avatar made at Volki's Website. Here is the link to my post. Making the avatar is really easy. I used the internal microphone on my laptop to give the voice, but you can also upload audio or it even has text recognition.

I chose to use the avatar because my students enjoyed one I made on my Enrichment Blog. I am interested to see how they respond when they use it tomorrow.