Engaging and Authentic Student Blogging

Last year, I started blogging with my students on Kidblog. I immediately saw the benefits to their motivation to write and the potential to expand our classroom across oceans and continents. In the next school year, I plan to use our class blog as a hub for writing and collaboration with other classes around the world.

There are as many approaches to student blogging as there are innovative teachers doing it, but I have a suggestion related to promoting and commenting which I think would make blogging more engaging and authentic for students.

Photo by Lars Plougmann

I think the Comments For Kids community is a fabulous idea. Certainly, writers love recognition of and feedback for their work. However, I wish there were more interaction between students. What follows are practices which I believe can accomplish this.

When students complete a task on their blog, they should tag the posts specifically. For example, ‘persuasive essay’ or ‘nature poem’. This allows those posts to be shared via a link to just those posts. Here’s an example of a link to students’ posts as part of an inquiry into Rights and Responsibilities: http://kidblog.org/JIESGrade6/category/units-of-inquiry/rights-responsibilities/.

A teacher can use that link to promote students’ writing on twitter or any other platform. More importantly, if another teacher notices posts that are particularly relevant to learning in her class, she can post that same link in her own class blog for her students to follow, read, and comment.

Finally, when a teacher uses a class blog for an assignment, create a post that allows students anywhere to participate. For example, if the task is to respond to a video, embed the video in the post so that students from other classes can participate. If there is a resource students would need, include a link in the post so that anyone can find it.

I think that student blogs should be central to collaboration and developing international mindedness and just a few careful habits from teachers can make it happen. Let’s create a deep net of posts, links, and comments!

I want workbenches in my classroom.

Make Cycle 5 (reflection)

The first assignment I remember from my ‘teacher training’ was to make a map of my ideal elementary classroom. It was based on what I called ‘zones’. There was a quiet reading zone equipped with beanbags, a gallery zone with easels dedicated to exhibiting artwork, and a vegetable garden under the windows. My proudest feature, however, was the workbenches. When I presented my map to the class, I spoke about how it was fine for students to have desks, but I wanted another area without chairs, just large, tall tables around which they could collaborate and build.

I wanted workbenches.

I had a few years experience teaching musical keyboard classes. I had wild ideas of ‘open school’ and giant learning spaces in which the boundaries between teacher and student, classroom and community, were smeared beyond recognition.

All I knew was that children learn best when they are self-directed and encouraged to collaborate.

Then, I became a teacher.

My first classroom in a start up charter school was far too small to squeeze anything but the students’ desks into. My own desk was just a waist-high bookshelf with a computer keyboard and monitor on top. Slowly, sadly, my dream to have a creative workspace for students became hazy and distant. Sure, they sculpted and painted at their desks. We arranged them in rectangles for collaboration. A few even took me up on the offer not to use a chair. My dream, to see my class on their feet learning with sweaty elbows and unrestricted creative potential, slowly drifted away.

Until the Making Learning Connected MOOC.

Now I’m considering a map for my classroom for the next school year. Considering? No. Conspiring is a better word. One idea, inspired by Sam Sherratt of Time Space Education, was to have an individual studio for each student arrayed around the classroom and all of their desks clustered in the center for meetings and collaboration. They would be free to arrange, decorate, and hack their studios as they like. They will undertake our school’s first PYP Exhibition and need an open creative space. I want to expand the Independent Inquiry project by providing more time to collaborate in class. Sam’s concept of classroom as studio is exactly what we need.

Will I be able to get workbenches? Doubtful this year, but if I leave the possibility open for them to bring their own preferred style of desk, it may be even better. Has anyone heard of BYOD? Bring Your Own Desk? Build Your Own Desk?

I’m very grateful to the  Making Learning Connected Community for helping to reawaken my creativity toward learning and teaching. I feel like a smartass student teacher again with huge ideas, inspired.
Someday, I will have workbenches.

Inquiry with Evernote vol 1

Three weeks ago, I began exploring Evernote. Literally within minutes, I was convinced that it is an essential tool for inquiry-based teaching. I hope that by the end of this post, you will agree and want to join me in taking a huge step toward true metateaching. If student curiosity is a spark, I want to use Evernote to ignite that spark into a raging inferno. To be authentic, inquiry must be unpredictable. Inquiry teaching includes a fair amount of modeled and structured inquiry, but the deepest learning occurs when learners follow their own interests and processes to construct understanding.

I have been using Evernote to create an interconnected web of media that can be instantly searched based on criteria I create for my inquiry classroom. I already feel like a librarian from a futuristic sci-fi movie! Here is my process for curating resources:

1 Discover an image, website, video, etc, which I think would be provocative for inquiry. I most often find them on tumblr, education blogs, and science and geography journals.

2 Create a note. I prefer to use the Web Clipper and to clip a stimulating image rather than the entire webpage. As long as I ensure that the URL included in the note is correct, I can easily follow my note to its source for further investigation. 

3 Customize the title of the note.

4 Add tags.

5 Done. Tags are the key to creating an inquiry library. My system for creating the tags is what makes Evernote both a scalpel and a battle ax of inquiry. I use five categories.

General Use a few tags for broad categories. For example, ‘education’, ‘technology’, or ‘learning theory’. Each of my notes usually gets just 1 or 2 general tags.

Thematic I recommend to use 5-8 thematic tags relevant to your units of inquiry like ‘Who we are’ or ‘Personal Expression’. If a note that you create seems relevant to any of your themes, tag it as such. Keep in mind that the more tags you create, the more connected your inquiry notebook will be.

Conceptual tags such as ‘form, ‘perspective’, ‘identity’, ‘independence’, ‘creativity’. When inquiry is running rampant, concepts become the adhesive that connects learning across disciplines, genres, and any other classifications. I recommend using 7 or 8 key concepts so that your web of connections is strong, and many (50+) secondary concepts so that you can search very specifically. If you search for a secondary concept, it will connect to various key concepts which relate to more secondary concepts, and so on.

Disciplinary tags like ‘history’, ‘biology’, ‘music’. These will be useful when a discipline-oriented inquiry is unraveling or when creating presentations, displays, etc.

Specific tags like ‘moon’, ‘pelican’, ‘fuzzy’, ‘grief’. These tags simply describe the note. I also include tags like ‘graphic’, ‘photo’, ‘game’, and ‘website’ to tag each note as explicitly as possible. If you curate a few hundred of resources in this way, your Evernote inquiry notebook will be a powerful tool for provoking inquiries both planned and spontaneous. If you curate a few thousand… Let’s go through the process with an actual resource from my notebook.

How would you tag this image in Evernote?
My note for this resource.

The general tag I chose for this note is ‘bloom’s taxonomy’ because I feel it could provoke an inquiry all the way up the cognitive ladder. The thematic tags are ‘Sharing the planet’, ‘Who we are’, and ‘How we express ourselves’. My conceptual tags are ‘form’, ‘responsibility’, ‘creativity’. This note’s disciplinary tags are ‘arts’, ‘social studies’, ‘geography’. The tags specific to this note are ‘painting’, ‘color’, ‘fish’, ‘animal’, ‘nature’, ‘indigenous’, and ‘student work’. Could there be more tags? There can always be more tags! The important thing is that your tags, in terms of categories and connections, work for inquiry by being broadly and deeply connected. Also, take care that the link in the note directs to the website from which it came. This image happens to be from a blog post by a middle school art teacher which includes many other examples, so it could be an excellent provocation for deeper inquiry leading to researching the artist who inspired the work or contacting the teacher who posted the image. Be sure to customize the title to your taste. I titled this note ‘Morriseau inspired paintings’. Often, the automatically generated title is quite long and jumbled. I prefer succinct titles.

In conclusion, there are many implications and applications for Evernote in inquiry learning and teaching. Knowing that I have only peeked under the lid is very exciting for me and I plan to explore much more deeply and share my adventures and misadventures in a series of posts here at Inquire Within. I hope your interest is piqued and that you will join me on this inquiry. What would you add? What would you subtract? Am I missing something obvious? I would love to collaborate to discover new ways to use Evernote to provoke and orchestrate inquiry learning and teaching! “As metateachers, we design the physical, social, emotional, conceptual, and informational environments in which learners can thrive.” (from Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching)

My Connected Learning Credo

Make Cycle 4 Reflection (Credo)

I believe that trust is the foundation of learning.

Learning is built on a foundation of trust.

I’m having a hard time trying explain it. It’s kind of a gut feeling and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway. I would like to I really need to reflect on how I arrived at it, however.

I joined the Making Learning Connected MOOC for summer professional development and specifically to help develop my Independent Inquiry project for the next school year. Since the project was largely inspired by Mimi Ito’s talk in the MIT MediaLab Learning Creative Learning MOOC, it only made sense to continue along that path of inquiry. I introduced myself innocuously and interacted with some nice people until…

I was shanghaied by the dread pirates Tellio and Dogtrax and their band of swarthy makers and dangerous creative thinkers! They hacked and challenged me and each other with unbridled aggression. Do this! Do that! Look here! Look there! My Google+ notifications were a distress beacon calling mayday on the high seas of my iPhone.

Then they did something unprecedented which has changed my outlook on learning forever.

They encouraged me.

With fervor. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the enthusiasm. I felt driven to participate. Within days, I felt that I had joined the gang. I was encouraging other land lubbers with positive comments and thoughtful suggestions. I began to consider piercings and tattoos. I hoisted the Jolly Roger and invaded new communities, trying to draw others into the mischief.

Then I began to trust my fellow pirates. I knew that whatever I tried, they would take seriously. If I made an honest effort, they would return it in kind. If I stumbled, they would lend their arms. When they hesitated, I would urge them on. Keep to the code.

The confidence that followed freed my mind. I began to act strangely, pondering the imponderable and imagining the unimaginable until a revelation hit me like a storm-driven swell!

This is what I want for my students, and now I know how to do it.

Build trust through unrelenting encouragement.

Is laziness good for learning?

Make Cycle 3 Reflection (Map)

Witnessing the creativity and originality of the maps my peers in the Making Learning Connected MOOC had submitted, I was overwhelmed by my own laziness. I didn’t feel like being ‘hands on’. Didn’t want to tinker. Wouldn’t go outside. I wasn’t even inspired by the thoughtful prompts or useful tools which had been shared. I was just too lazy.

Was it because this is the first week of my summer break? Was it because the weather in Tokyo is becoming hotter and muggier? Am I naturally lazy?

From an evolutionary perspective, isn’t being lazy very important? Wasted energy and effort don’t support survival, and nobody likes a busybody out on the Serengeti. Lions are lazy, sleeping most of their lives, and bears hibernate for a few months every year! Bears and lions are awesome, so why is laziness such a taboo?!

As I wallowed in my laziness, it dawned on me that I could make a map to help solve my problem, both to understand my laziness and finish my assignment, and viola!, my Laziness Map.

Click to view in google drive.

Working on it was metacognitively enlightening. I managed to achieve precisely one of the subconscious goals of Independent Inquiry, which is to have fun learning without realizing the seriousness of the learning occurring. This is a major breakthrough, as I often struggle to motivate or encourage students who “can’t think of anything” to inquire into or try. Knowing that whatever they do will be exercising their learning, I might suggest that they do nothing. Just go for a stroll or make a list of words beginning with ‘D’.

I should encourage students to seek creative strategies that work for them and present models in the form of famous artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc, to help guide and inspire them.
‘I choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.’ Bill Gates

In terms of creativity and innovation, laziness is not necessarily negative. My laziness led to a fun and creative solution to the problem of making a map. Perhaps makers should embrace laziness when it overtakes them in order to stimulate untapped creativity. When in doubt, take a nap.

While I’m not planning to encourage laziness in my class, I do think that authentic autonomy in learning must provide the opportunity for inactivity as well as activity. I look forward to exploring these notions further.
Naps will remain encouraged, of course.

Parents as Catalyst for Professional Development

During end-of-year conferences, I had an enlightening conversation with the parents of twins. What made it interesting was the fact that the two siblings have completely different approaches to learning. We described one as a ‘Part to Whole’ learner and the other as a ‘Whole to Part’ learner. In the conference, they generously shared a story about their children learning to walk: One carefully analyzed the process of walking before venturing out; the other stood up and stumbled across the room without hesitation. It reminded me of my summer DES!GN project and my interest was piqued. How might I better design learning experiences to better engage ‘whole to part’ learners? Hence this blog post.
A brief inquiry led to this fantastic paper by Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., Visual-Spatial Learners.

Although sharing terminology with the learning modalities and multiple intelligences, I am finding it very helpful to think of different approaches to learning existing on a continuum from Visual-Spatial to Auditory-Sequential.

Everyone is unique, but from an instructional design perspective, if I always consider the extremes of the spectrum, I should be accommodating any learning style on the spectrum.

This is different than the left brain/right brain theory, which I find to be rather simplistic and dated. The more we learn about the brain, the more it seems to be a connected, rather than compartmentalized, system. (Neuroscience is a great tumblr to follow on the subject of the brain). We can still use right brain/left brain vocabulary to describe visual-spacial and auditory-sequential learners, as in the graphic below.

graphic via mindjet

I do have questions. For one, are there people who are auditory-spatial or visual-sequential thinkers? Also, when considering learning modalities and multiple intelligence preferences, I make a point to help learners to challenge their weaker areas as well as capitalize on their stronger areas. Shouldn’t the same apply to the spatial-sequential spectrum? Wouldn’t anyone benefit from being more balanced?

School is generally well-suited to sequential-auditory learners, and my classroom is no exception. Teachers naturally feel obligated to break content down to make it palatable, but maybe we shouldn’t always do that! Perhaps sometimes we should start with a broad concept and provoke the students to break it down, or not break it down at all…

So my driving question is, what can I do to make visual-spatial learners feel more welcomed and engaged?

In general, I assume that interest-driven learning, inquiry-based learning, and independent inquiry are beneficial to all learners and visual-spatial in particular, especially in upper elementary classes. Perhaps a good place for me to start would be to learn more about whole-to-part learning processes and design some of our activities around those approaches.

This will be an ongoing inquiry for me as I prepare for the next school year. Suggestions welcome!!!!