The Idea Hive 2013/14 Begins

Today the tag line that follows my blog title “Teaching with technology in a Gr. 7/8 classroom means sometimes you fly by the seat of your pants.” was relived-in a positive light. The Idea Hive, heading into another year, was set for our first Skype call at 10:55 EST.  While my teaching partner, Clarence Fisher, in Snow Lake, Manitoba, has very patiently tolerated the many snow days, and therefore class cancellations, we’ve put him and his students through over the past few years, I’m sure he (well, no one actually) expected today’s potential cancellation due to fog and bus delays, that almost offset our first classroom connection.

Actually, it was perfect! It gave me time to train two of my students, Jake and Riley, to run and broadcast the event live from our internet radio station, 105theHive, which I’d thought of while setting up this morning (there’s that “flying by the seat of your pants” mantra). They were awesome!

And by the time the students arrived and were directed into the largest classroom that could hold all 80 +, we were right on time.

With a grade 8 student body this large, none of this happens without the support of my fellow gr. 8 teachers. Mlle. Riley, the French teacher, offered her large classroom as the Skype site. Mr. Westra, my Language teaching partner, is supportive of jumping our language program into whatever unfolds during this adventure. And Ms. Martin, the math teacher, was willing to give up teaching time, in an unusually chaotic day, so all students could participate. As we re-introduce the Wingham end of the Idea Hive with gr. 8’s on a rotary schedule, we are not only bigger in student number, but in supportive teaching staff as well. I’m excited for this new transition.

Jump over to the Idea Hive to view more pics and listen to the broadcast recorded live today.

New Connections in the Idea Hive 2013/14

Strengthening Compassion via Half Brother & Project Nim

This year the Idea Hive read aloud featured the book, Half Brother by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. The Idea Hive is two grade  7/8 classrooms located 2 700 km. apart in Wingham, Ontario and Snow Lake, Manitoba.  The story which was included in this year’s Red Maple selection (and the resulting winner) centres around 13 yr. old Ben and his relationship with a baby chimp Zan. Ben’s scientist parents are trying to prove that chimps can communicate with humans by teaching them sign language. Oppel’s synopsis:

“Ben Tomlin was an only child for thirteen years. Then his parents brought home a baby chimp. It isn’t long before Ben is Zan’s favourite, and Ben starts to see Zan as more than just an experiment. His father disagrees. Soon Ben is forced to make a critical choice between what he is told to believe and what he knows to be true — between obeying his father or protecting his brother from an unimaginable fate.”

Similar to our read aloud last year, my teaching partner Clarence Fisher or I read the novel to the students via Skype or on our radio station, 105theHive. One of us interacted with the students in the chat room while they listened. At the end of each reading, students posted their comments and reflections on an online sticky note. You can find links to all the chats and reflections on the Idea Hive site. Throughout the readings, students were asked a variety of thought-provoking questions including whether or not they agreed with the researcher’s distant approach to Zan, or life lessons that emerged as the characters developed. Some questions dealt with the humourous sections of the story as Ben attempted to win a girlfriend and so they provided relationship advice for Ben.

Once we were finished the book, Clarence and I planned to have our students watch the documentary Project Nim which mirrors the storyline in Half Brother. Before doing so, I posted the following on the Idea Hive website:

Summary from NPR article:

“In 1973, an infant chimpanzee was taken from his mother’s arms and sent to live with a human family as part of a Columbia University psychology experiment. The goal of the project was to see if the animal, named Nim Chimpsky, could be conditioned to communicate with humans if he was raised like a human child in a human household. He learned some very basic words in American Sign Language, but Nim continued to act like a chimp — he bit the children in the house and didn’t understand how to behave like a human child. It was decided that the family could no longer care for Nim, and he was shuffled from caretaker to caretaker for several years.”

Sound familiar?

We will be watching this recently released documentary, Project Nim, over two class periods. Afterwards you’ll be asked to write a blog post addressing the following issues:

What similarities and differences do you notice between Half Brother and Project Nim (characters, story line, setting etc.) ? What surprised you most in the documentary? What were you most disturbed about? What were you happiest about? What did you learn from the documentary that you hadn’t thought of before?

Students noticed a number of similarities, particularly the traits between the two key researchers. They were shocked at the differences portrayed between the chimps’ behaviour. In the novel, Zan was portrayed as a cute and intelligent chimp with a tendency for mischief and the odd bite. In the documentary, the dangerous, aggressive nature of mature chimps was much more evident. Students were disturbed by the scene showing chimpanzees being strapped onto a table for injections. Chimps who were raised as humans were stripped of their comforting toys and surroundings once the research trials had been disbanded. Frank and honest comments were posted on some of their blogs. “They made a huge commitment to Nim, treating him like a human,  and then they left. That’s animal cruelty.”

“We learned about how much of a traumatic change it was for Nim to go from living with humans to living with other chimps.  He wasn’t comfortable with them, and he suffered a lot.” Alyssa

After students had commented on each others’ blogs, they had questions surrounding the ethics of animal testing, so we asked a local veterinarian, Dr. Suzanne Baird, to address these. Dr. Baird visited our Wingham classroom and both classes listened to her either live or via 105thehive and a chat room. Dr. Baird provided a very balanced approach to the topic. Students learned not only about regulations regarding animal testing as well as the advances in human health that have come as a result. You can listen to the entire broadcast: Interview with Veterinarian, Dr. Suzanne Baird. Following her visit, students raised money by selling freezies at their annual ball tournament. This money was donated to Dr. Baird with the students’ request that it be used for the treatment of an animal where finances were limited.

Half Brother paired with Project Nim not only engaged our students, this project forced them to address some powerful, challenging questions regarding issues of animal testing. It strengthened their compassion for others.

A Long Journey is Finally Complete

Last year the Idea Hive students spent a considerable amount of time studying Markus Zusak’s award winning novel, The Book Thief. As a follow-up activity to our read aloud, the students wrote their own novel, A Field Guide to Molching, based on the story’s fictional town. After Markus read the online version of their novel, he agreed to Skype simultaneously from Australia with my students in Wingham, Ontario and Clarence’s students in Snow Lake, Manitoba. Unfortunately, the Skype connection from Manitoba was a fail. While the experience was wonderful for those of us in Ontario, we felt saddened for the opportunity missed by the rest of the Idea Hive classroom.

The students from Ontario and Manitoba signed and sent copies of their book to Markus, who shared his plans to give a copy to his father as a Father’s Day gift.  He also told our students they were to expect something in the mail from him.

Several weeks into our summer break, two autographed promotional posters of The Book Thief arrived from Australia – one for each of the Idea Hive classrooms. Markus, who had been saving these special double-sided posters, knew our students would appreciate what they meant to him.

After Clarence and I decided to laminate the posters, I took them to Carman’s Foto Source, located in the centre of my closest town, Goderich.

The next day, an F3 tornado moved through the main part of town, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.  Our community was shocked as news of the devastation unfolded, and it wasn’t until the following day that I realized the posters were likely lost as well.  While this was nothing compared to what others in the community had suffered, I couldn’t believe that once again, the events for our students had taken another disappointing turn.

Unexpectedly, I received a phone call 3 weeks later – “We have your posters”.  The town engineers and police had allowed owners of the many damaged buildings 15 minutes to gather what items they safely could. Instead of taking expensive equipment, the employees of Carman’s saved their customer’s belongings – including the posters.

Since the store in Goderich was (and still is) closed, the posters were laminated and returned to the head office in another town.  Imagining the chaos involved with a sudden merger of the damaged goods, it’s not surprising that the posters again went missing.  I wondered if our students would ever see them.  However, three weeks ago, once again, the posters turned up, and so the next day, after driving to Stratford and collecting them, I breathed a sigh of relief – and sent Clarence a tweet. “I have the posters!!”

After shipping Clarence’s poster off to Snow Lake (registered of course!), Clarence and I agreed to wait until he received it and we could present the posters together to our students. Today was the day.

We started the Skype call by sharing the journey that we all took last year with this year’s new gr. 7’s, and then shared a picture I’d taken of the posters before being dropped of  in Goderich. In order for the students from Snow Lake to visualize the impact of the tornado, we played the first half of this video showing the town before and after.  It was a sobering reminder for all of us so close to the community.

When we finally finished the story and produced the recovered posters, there were smiles of relief and clapping from everyone as the students realized the posters were safe.

While Clarence can tell the news to his former gr. 8 students, who are still attending school in the same building, I’ll be sending an email with a link to this post to my former gr. 8 students.  I can already imagine the smiles on their faces.

The Idea Hive students are thrilled and appreciative of Markus’ gift. After travelling over 15,000 km and surviving an F3 tornado, we are thankful the posters’ long journey is finally complete.

Achievements in the Idea Hive

It’s year two in the Idea Hive, and the learning continues for our students. The seasoned gr. 8 students (our 7’s from last year) seemed to pick right up from where we left off in June. As my teaching partner, Clarence Fisher, wrote in a previous post, these students have got “Skillz”. Similar to last year, we continued to foster the connections between our students through an Interest Survey and Flickr photo contest.

As we move towards a shared read aloud of the novel Half Brother, by Canadian author, Kenneth Oppel, our students have begun researching topics covered in the novel in order to better relate to the context: animal research, sign language, chimpanzees, and life in the 70’s, to name a few. Working in groups, two from Wingham, two from Snow Lake, they’re moving onto creating a shared Google Presentation, complete with the updated chat feature, which they’ll present to both classes via Skype.

While our students have become quite skilled at working together in a shared Google Doc, the skills required to create a shared Google Presentation needed some focus. Students struggled to agree on a number of issues including types of images, background themes, and the amount of text on a slide. New to this collaborative process, there were hick-ups and bumps, so we took some time to regroup as a class of 59. That included a shared class writing activity which we call the Knowledge Care document. Via Skype, our students shared their insight on what they need to consider and practice as they write and create together. We ended the call with guidance on how to apply these skills as they create their collaborative Google Presentation.

Clarence then spoke about the “Achievements” points that the Idea Hive students could earn through their activity in the Idea Hive site. The goal is to have our students strengthen their connections in this community. The more time our students interact with each other in this learning space, the more points they earn.  After our call, I had my kids spend the last few minutes of the day adding a comment to the Passions forum where some of Clarence’s students had previously posted on their interest: music, pets, sports, hunting, and more. And once again, I had to beg my students to log off and head out for the bus home. However, this time it wasn’t just a few – it was the entire class.

And the day ended….or so I thought.

Two hours after the school day ended, one of my students began to write about his passion – hunting. He shared the doc with me, and after dinner when I discovered it, he was still writing. While this might not be unusual to some, it was particularly moving for me. This student struggles with writing, and has never seen himself as a writer. Yet clearly, he wants to share; he has a voice.

I wondered if the “Achievements” had something to do with this. And so I asked my student, “Can I share this doc with Mr. Fisher?”. He responded with the same drive that lead me to his doc in the first place, “What’s his email? I’ll share it with him myself”.

Within minutes, both Clarence and I, the Idea Hive teachers, were in the Google doc chat room with my student, guiding him as he looked for feedback.

Teaching in a collaborative classroom helps support our students in unexpected ways and in learning spaces and lesson times driven by our students. “Achievements” came in several different forms today. Are the mindsets of educators ready to recognize and value these different forms?

It’s year two in the Idea Hive, and the learning continues for me.

Author of “The Book Thief” Visits the Idea Hive Classroom

The Idea Hive classroom is almost out for the summer. But just before the year ends, the students had, as one of them described, the “opportunity of a lifetime” – a Skype visit from the award-winning author of  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.

Clarence and I have written about the Idea Hive class activities surrounding The Book Thief in previous posts. The story is set in the fictional town of Molching, Germany during WW II.  It’s a beautifully written story of a young girl’s relationship with her new foster parents and neighbours. Narrated by “Death”, it’s full of humour and heartbreak. A few of my favourite passages..

As Liesel attempts to explain the reason for her first stolen book to Hans, her foster father: The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.

The scene where Liesel intrudes upon her step-mother, Rosa, as she cradles her husband’s accordion after he’s sent to war. Mama was snoring again.  Who needs bellows, she thought, when you’ve got a pair of lungs like that?

And of course, the last quote from “Death”: I am haunted by humans.

Our classrooms connected via skype almost daily as Clarence and I read the story aloud to our students. While one teacher read, the other was in the TodaysMeet backchannel room, helping students as we answered questions or posting compelling phrases. After the book was finished, the students wrote their first book, A Field Guide to Molching, which is inspired by the characters and events in The Book Thief. Using Google Docs, and working in groups of 4 (2 from Manitoba, 2 from Ontario) the students came up with the topics that should be included before moving into this two month project.

After presenting the books to our students, we contacted Markus Zusak, from Sydney, Australia, who graciously agreed to a group skype call with our students. It took some planning, as we all live in different time zones. So with a willingness to make it work for everyone, Markus agreed to an 11:00 p.m. call, while Clarence’s students in Snow Lake agreed to come to school an hour earlier.  Each class had previously prepared questions, and two students from each classroom wrote as the event unfolded in the TodaysMeet chat room.

Unfortunately for Clarence’s students, skype was not connecting that morning for them.  As we got started, we assumed Clarence and the students in Snow Lake would be joining in shortly. But when we got towards the end of the call and still no Snow Lake, I had some of my students ask the questions that Clarence’s students had planned.

One of my students had videotaped most of what was happening in the classroom in three sections. I was able to upload the first section, which was under 300 MB in size, and share it with Clarence via Dropbox. Not so easy with the next two sections which were over 357 and 959 MB. Even the Dropbox upgrade still wouldn’t allow those size of files. My call for help on Twitter was answered by my son’s friend, who recommended sending the large files through Mediafire. Thank-you James!

Luckily, the audio quality from the videotaped files was clear, so the Snow Lake students could hear the discussion. Markus spoke very openly as he answered many questions from the students, including one on what it takes to gain success as a writer. His philosophy on the value of failure and making priorities could apply to many goals in life.
1) Embrace failure.  It means you will grow as a writer.
2) Make writing a priority. You need to enjoy that time alone and being alone with your characters.

Markus emphasized the importance of time in the writing process – time needed to develop and revise ideas, which often means moving sections around. He shared, he inspired, and he made kids laugh. Student reflected on their linoit sticky notes

“It was like he was right here with us. It was so much fun to listen to the answers that he gave. Markus put a lot of thought into each answer. It was a great experience.”

“After reading his book and getting to know all the characters it was nice to know how they came to life.”

“I am glad that Markus gave out some advice on how to be a good writer. Now I am thinking of writing a fly-fishing book over the summer.”

“I hope that when I’m in grade 9, and the Idea Hive is still working away, I get to hear about what is going on. I would never trade away this experience.”

After reciting the opening to his new book, Markus asked the students about their next publication. While they didn’t have a specific answer, the students hope to publish another book next year as our classrooms continue working together in the Idea Hive. Our soon-to-be grade 8 students already have a solid foundation to build upon.

While not without its share of struggles, our goal of creating a connected classroom has changed how our students learn. They value the fact that “we learn better together”.  They’ve learned that the definition of “teacher” has moved beyond being just the one in their classroom. In their connected classroom, “teacher” can be anyone in the world, including Mr. Fisher in the chat room or even an award-winning author of a beloved book.

The Sum of the Whole is Greater Than its Parts: A Field Guide to Molching

As the students move towards the end of this year’s collaboration in the Idea Hive, Clarence and I presented our students with the book they wrote together, while living 2 700 km apart. A Field Guide to Molching came into being after we read aloud, via Skype, Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. Set in the fictional town of Molching, Germany during Hitler’s reign, it’s the story of a little girl’s relationship with her foster parents, friends and neighbours. Filled with humour and heartbreak, the story is told from Death’s point of view.  It opens with a train headed for Molching, the death of Liesel’s brother and a track-side funeral. We knew our students would fall in love with the characters. They did. At the end of the story, the students didn’t want to leave Liesel, Rudy, Max, Rosa, Hans, and Frau Holtzafel – they were connected. Clarence and I chronicled the journey throughout the year.

So what if we traveled to the fictional town of Molching? What would “A Field Guide to Molching” look like? To help them visualize it, Clarence and I showed our students online travel guides. They determined the most relevant people, places and events to write about if  touring this town.

Using Google Docs and its chat room, students signed up for the writing topic of their choice in a google doc. Clarence and I dropped in and out of each chat room doc to give feedback and advice if needed. When we needed advice on the use of images from that era, Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep) provided guidance. As a final step, the 84 page document was uploaded and published at Lulu.com.

By the end of this event, students had learned much about the arduous writing process. I was reminded of the line, “The sum of the whole is greater than its parts.” That’s the big picture. It’s not about marks or report cards. It’s about helping students develop their collaborative learning and shared writing skills. It’s that simple, and that complex.

This week students were presented with the hard copy of “A Field Guide to Molching”. While Clarence and I had planned to Skype during the presentation, Skype had other plans (not) and it wasn’t meant to be. So with our Twitter connection, Clarence and I decided to go ahead. Even though we had told the the students this was the goal, their shock and joy was evident. After receiving their books, students posted their reactions on a web 2.0 tool they’ve become quite comfortable with – linoit. Many of the comments posted focused on how proud the students are of their work and how much they enjoyed writing together with new friends living so far apart.

I feel like an author and it feels good. We should have this book published. I bet people would buy it when they buy the real book to get to know about the town Liesel lives in.  Tanner M.

While we were writing the books there were disagreements and different opinions but at the end everyone was happy and the book turned out good. :D   Heaven

We should so do something like this again next year for all of the Gr.7s going into Gr.8. I think we should give Mr. Zuzak a tweet about this, see what he thinks!  Tyler P. (great idea  – we’re working on that, Tyler!)

I’m so glad we actually finished… I’m a real writer!  Hailey

If I was ever given the chance to read that book again I would never let it down.   Justin S.

It makes me understand how many hours of hard work it actually takes to accomplish something. One of the things that i enjoyed the most was when we got to think of the ideas for the book and we got to talk to each other in the chat room.  Riley

One of my experiences that was everlasting was the feeling of being very important. Sometimes during the book I would close my eyes and think how good the story was. It was one of the best books that was ever read to me.  Sully

Sully, right back at you!  This has been one of the best teaching experiences that I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in.  Clarence and I have shared this story with Markus Zusak through his Twitter and Facebook account.  With any luck, the Idea Hive student authors will hear from the author who inspired them.

Word Shakers in the Idea Hive

In his TEDGlobal talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson uses the term, “liquid network” to describe a learning environment where innovation and deep thinking happens. He describes it as “kind of chaotic where ideas are likely to come together, where people were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions – people from different backgrounds. We take ideas from other people and we stick them together in new forms to create something new.”

The Idea Hive recently created their own “liquid network” in a shared writing project. The Idea Hive is a year-long collaboration connecting Clarence Fisher’s students in Snow Lake, Manitoba with my students in Wingham, Ontario. In previous posts, we’ve described the Skyped read aloud, backchannel and virtual bulletin board process that connects us daily as we journey through the novel, The Book Thief.  At this point, we’ve reached the story within the novel called “The Word Shaker”. This illustrated fable is written and presented by the Jewish character Max, to the young German protagonist, Liesel. The story mirrors the use of propaganda by Hitler. In Max’s story, a young girl (“the Word Shaker”) is encouraged to fight words of hatred with words of love.

After being given copies of the 11 images only from the fable (no text), students in the Idea Hive were asked to work together to predict the story Max had written. Each group (2 students from Ontario, 2 from Manitoba) used a shared Google doc and the sidebar chatroom to communicate and create their story.

During the 45-minute work periods, the room was completely silent as students participated in their group’s chat room, formulating plans to be transferred by the agreed-upon “recorder” into the document. After the first work period, Clarence and I each had a discussion with our own students about the process. Students loved the high rate of participation by most group members. They engaged in debate, synthesis and cooperation. They had fun. Frustrations due to technical troubles were similar at both ends. This highlighted the fact that collaborative skills (inclusion, wait time) were even more important when working only with text.

Avery is excited and proud to tell the principal about the shared writing activity he's working on in the Idea Hive with his partner here in Ontario and two others in Manitoba.

The students’ level of engagement in the following days spoke for itself. The silence in the classrooms continued as students actively “chatted” in their groups. On day three and four,  students who were home sick joined their group online in order to participate in the project.

As students wrote, Clarence and I dropped in and out of the 11 chat rooms, offering quick suggestions or asking a few questions. We watched the story document develop while the brainstorming and discussion carried on in the chat room sidebar. Clarence’s description – “mesmerizing”.

Once the groups finished writing their interpretation of Max’s story, the groups presented together some of their images via Skype to the Idea Hive class, then posted their finished work on their blogs (click on student names below to view group stories).

So, other than creating a story, what did the students learn?

Student reflection….

While chatting with others via computer, I learned….

….to slow down and be patient.  Not all of us think alike and we work at different speeds.  …to stay cool with someone and not be annoyed, because you never know what could be going on with the people on the other side. Tyler

…to really think before we typed to avoid sounding like we were singling out one of our partners, or that we thought our way was the only way. … to go with others and give them a chance.  Our story wouldn’t have turned out as good if we didn’t include our partners’ ideas. Kori

…that if someone is going off track then you shouldn’t follow.  In fact, you shouldn’t be afraid to tell them to get back on track.  Brad

….it was easier to talk on Skype after talking in the chatroom, because I felt I already knew them.   Nataja

…to ask more questions.  Alyssa

…that it’s important to start the chat by socializing with your partners.  Trevor

…that I want to do this again because I like interacting with people I don’t know.  Our story was better than the one I would have created on my own.  Ethan

…that working this way changes your way of thinking.    Justin

These students have learned lessons far beyond those outlined in the curriculum. They are displaying skills that any 21st century employer seeks.

Innovation often happens in unlikely, unpredictable ways. Creating opportunities for our students to learn in this “liquid network” help to lead our students in completely different pathways they’d never thought of. Across 2 700 km, students used the power of words to collaboratively developed an understanding of the importance of words. In a text-only collaborative process, they themselves became “The Word Shakers”.