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.


Mrs. R. Martin said...

Great ideas for biomes that I want to share with others in my school. Last year we tried a GoogleEarth biome project. I am still editing it and will send you the link when we finish with the spelling and fact check.

eplybon said...

All the technologies you used were great and your reasoning sound. I love that you gave your students so many options. You are absolutely correct - students are far more interested in doing a great job when they know that "someone out there" might see the result.