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”.

Staying Connected Through Snow Days

Living in Huron County, Ontario offers many advantages – great agricultural land and lovely beaches, to name a few.  However, due to the strong and cold northwest winds blowing over the relatively warmer waters of Lake Huron, we get hit hard with whiteout snow conditions.  Buses are cancelled and schools and roads are closed.  While the first few “Snow Days” are exciting, the novelty soon wears off.  Fortunately, some students willingly take advantage of being connected with various web 2.0 tools to keep up with previously assigned tasks.  How do we respond to those who won’t or can’t?

All students in my class have access to internet at home and their own Google Apps account which includes email.  During these snow days, several students have stayed connected to me and their peers through email, and posting comments on the class wiki and Idea Hive blog.  They were clearly concerned about their upcoming Christmas concert and assignment.

Before the snow hit, I had assigned the students a science research project.  After discussing the outline and “sharing” all relevant documents online, they spent two periods in class working the research.  Students created Google docs which were shared with me.  On our first snow day, I sent an email to the students and their parents, encouraging students to work on the project so I could post feedback on their documents.  As expected, during the snow days that immediately followed, there was little activity in their docs.  When we got back to school after snow day #3, we had a discussion about expectations if the stormy weather returned.  Students knew they were to continue working independently from home, and I would provide feedback in their docs along the way.

By snow day #5, about a third of the class had taken hold of the task, and were near completion.  The rest of the students had done little or were M.I.A. I continued to send emails to all students, providing next steps and posting feedback to those moving forward.  Today, as we move into snow day #6, I can see there will not be any more class time available for this assignment due to other fundraising and Christmas concert activities that must be completed in the next two day.  In January, we have to move on to a new science unit.  The students were made aware of these facts through another email.  What is the fairest way to deal with those who will have completed the assignment versus those who either chose not to read their emails and work, or, perhaps couldn’t?

Through this messed up schedule, my Idea Hive teaching partner, Clarence Fisher, and his students in Snow Lake, Manitoba, patiently wait for our return. Clarence generously listened and made suggestions on how to fairly address my concerns regarding the science assignment.   While the advantage of having technology is that students can still work, it doesn’t mean they will.  It’s also impossible to know if their internet connections are even working.  Ultimately, it’s up to the students to complete the assignment, so they’ll have the extra time over Christmas break to do so.

Even though we can extend support to our students through web 2.0 tools when school closes, factors such as initiative, independence and questionable internet connections are a reality.  On a positive note, Google Apps and blogs are excellent tools that have enabled me to provide feedback and have some enjoyable “chats” with my students during the last six snow days.

It is kind of ironic that while Clarence and his students are the ones from the great white north, with “remote access“, I’m the one not able to drive out my laneway.  How fortunate I am to have the ear and support from my “close” teaching partner, only 2 700 km away!

Using Diigo in the Middle School Classroom

One of my goals this year was to teach my students to use Diigo.  With a focus on inquiry-based learning, my students do a lot of digital reading, and collaborate within and outside of the classroom.  Diigo is an excellent tool that enables students to bookmark, tag, highlight and annotate their online text, which can be accessed anywhere, anytime.  This annotated text can be privately or publically shared with other students or groups, depending on their settings.  In addition, Diigo allows my students to make more efficient use of their time by accessing similar sites from other Diigo users with shared interests.

While Diigo offers education accounts, I chose to have my students set up their own accounts.  As these students move on to high school next year, it’s important they carry their virtual filing cabinet with them.

I began the class by showing an introductory video, followed by a tour of my own Diigo library and network.  Next, my students set up their own accounts using their school appointed email address, username and password.  Within minutes, they had figured out how to follow me (“I’m creepin’ you Mrs. D!”).  Imgine that, students wanting to see what the teacher is planning!

Once my students had added each other as followers, I directed them to my “responsibility” tag in my Diigo library.  Using various web 2.0 tools, each student will be creating a biography on an activist of their choice who demonstrates this trait.  Rather than post the introductory link on the class wiki, Diigo saves time as I can bookmark the site once, and direct my students where to find it.  Once they had saved the specified site into their library, they spent some time surfing through the site, highlighting text and writing sticky notes.  It’s important to let students “play” and discover when learning a new tool.

The students love it.  “No more mess of papers that I can’t find.  Everything for my project is here”.  They were excited, and were planning out their next steps.  “Summarize the text on the sticky note, copy my “jot” notes into a Google Doc to edit, and post the final project on my blog.”

My next step is to have students create their own groups as we move into shared readings and collaborative projects.  Within these groups, they can set up a topic and have discussions, similar to a running a chat room.  Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade teacher, shares a wealth of social bookmarking uses in his wiki, Digitally Speaking.

My students recognize Diigo as a tool they can use to collaborate and share, improving their productivity and learning.  They’ve taken another step as they develop their digital footprint.

Reaching Back: The Value of Blogging in Middle School

Today I suddenly realized one of the most important reasons why our students should blog – to stay connected to their peers.  While I’d always thought the primary value of a student blog was to reflect and connect with others outside of the classroom, today, the value of connecting from within became very clear.

One of my grade 7 students deals with Asperger’s disorder.  Due to issues with bullying, his parents moved from the big city to our small-town community, hoping that he’d have a more peaceful life in school.  He has.  My students quietly understood, accepted him, and made sure he was included in all activities.  It was beautiful to watch the grade eight boys convince him to play football.  Sweet.  During independent writing time, when the room was dead silent, he sometimes angrily spoke into his microphone while using Dragon Dictate.  “I said SCRATCH THAT!”  The grade 8 girls, sitting near him just smiled and kept working.  No dirty looks.

Last week, very abruptly, this student’s family moved from this community, a small village with a population of less than 1000, back to the big city (population in the millions).  While I certainly understand his parents’ reason for moving, it doesn’t dull the anxiety I feel for him as he moves back into a rotary system, his computer and scanner stored in a resource room.

Today, less than a week after his move, my former student blogged about the differences between his old and new home.  It’s clear he misses his old life, and is reaching out to his former peers.  From afar, we’ll encourage him to share the positives of his new school community.

I often thought of blogging as a way of helping students reach out to others.  While this student doesn’t have Facebook or a cell phone, he does have a blog that he set up in my classroom.  He is using his blog to reach back to us and maintain some social interactions.  I am so thankful he is still connected to us, and we to him.


Securing the Connection

As we end our third week of the shared read aloud of The Book Thief, it’s clear the students in Ontario and Manitoba are supporting each other in their learning.  Today as I read via Skype, Clarence participated in the backchannel discussion.

Good prediction @Jason/Jordan     Heaven/Jessica at 11:47 AM

@Heaven/Jessica, Thank you. What do you think will happen?     Jason/Jordan at 11:49 AM

Liesel has an overactive imagination.     Alex & Juli at 11:55 AM

Agreed @Alex & Juli !  Hailey; Melissa! ☺ at 11:56 AM

and my favourite…

It was like you were here reading with us Mrs. D     Alex & Juli at 12:03 PM

Following this activity, the students posted comments on the linoit wall and each other’s blogs.  Students then checked their incoming comments, and as time ran out, some promised to reconnect tonight.

Kassie’s Blog

Across this 2 700 km link, Clarence and I are developing relationships with each other’s students as we comment on their blogs. Reading into the computer microphone to all the Idea Hive students,  my classroom takes on a new feel.  We are larger, stronger, more connected.

Tonight, I have a deep sense that we are truly becoming one. The Idea Hive is growing closer.

@Alex and Julie, I felt like I was with you today too!

We Will Remember Them

Although most collaborative projects this year connect my students with those in their age group, and another province, their latest Remembrance Day project meant connecting with primary grade 2/3 students from just down the hall.

The primary teacher, Pat Evers, and I started this tradition last year, after Pat shared the music of Joe Satriani’s, Ten Words.  In an interview, Satriani, one of the world’s top guitarists, told his audience that he wrote this song on the evening of September 11, 2001.

After all students listened to the song, the grade 7/8 students were challenged to write a phrase framing PEACE…..in Ten Words.  Grade 2/3 students wrote ten comments or words about Peace.  Following the writing, the intermediate students worked with their primary partners to create Wordles.  These projects were presented during the Remembrance Day assembly.

This year, our intermediate students and their primary partners, using VoiceThread, created a presentation  about Canadian WW II veterans.  To begin the project, students listened to many of the veteran’s podcasts posted in the “The Memory Project” and then chose one veteran to focus on.  The Memory Project offers an unprecedented account of Canada’s participation in the Second World War through thousands of firsthand veteran testimonials. Each testimonial includes a podcast, narrated by the veteran, and a text account, making it a perfect site for students of all reading levels.  The site allows students to search for veterans based on many criteria such as name, service, campaign and battle.

Pat and I noticed a transition that took place with the students as they worked through the project. Younger students, who often view war as “shooting” and “bad guys”, began to understand the sacrifice and sadness of war for the common people on both sides of the conflict . The older students became teachers, guiding their young partners through the process.  They helped to coach meaningful quotes and connections from their little partners after listening to the veteran’s stories.  Often it was everyday reflections that connect the younger students to the veterans’ experiences.  These little details transformed the veterans from mere names to real people.

“Olive had two brothers.  I have three brothers.  I think she wouldn’t have missed them for a little while, but then she’d miss the things they did to bug her.” Makenzie, Gr. 2

“When Harvey Douglas Burns was part of the Navy, the boat he worked on had only two or three washrooms for sixty other crew members.” Breelle, Gr. 3.

Once their scripts were written, the intermediate students uploaded an image of the veteran into a collaborative VoiceThread, and helped their little buddies record their thoughts.

Some students, like Shelby and Josh, focused on a positive message, such as that of Burton Edwin Harper.  “Burton dragged himself to a house after being wounded, and found a nurse to care for him.  He and that nurse recently celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary.”

Garrett, in Gr. 3, was impacted by the words of Norman G. Dawber and shared his words. “Norman said he was surprised that the birds were still singing, even though gunfire and cannons were going off everywhere.”

Tanner, Gr. 7, shared the story of Mendel Thrasher, ending with Mendel’s words, “Terrible things take place through wars.”

Each intermediate and primary pair of students made this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony their own – something they will never forget.  It’s one of the most poignant teaching experiences of the year for both Pat and I.

Thanks Pat, for sharing your students, ideas and enthusiasm for this project.  H.D.

View the completed project:  The Memory Project VoiceThread 2010

Holocaust Education via @langwitches & Group Skype

This week, the Idea Hive experienced a significant “first”:  a shared read aloud of The Book Thief using Skype, backchannel chat, and Linoit, a virtual bulletin board.   In previous posts, Clarence shared the beauty of this story, and the pre-reading activities leading up to the book, designed to develop students’ knowledge of Germany in WW II.  In the Hive Thinking classroom, students collaborated to produce research summaries of various topics including Hitler Youth, Jesse Owens, Hitler, Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust.

Following this step, students viewed a video created by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, Kristallnacht- Night of the Broken Glass.  While viewing images, including many of her Jewish grandparents in Germany, Silvia narrates her family’s story surrounding that horrific night on November 9, 1938, when Hitler showed the world his plans for the Jewish community. Please take the 9 min. needed to view her story.  I assure you it will be worth it.

The next day, the Idea Hive students met via Skype to share questions they planned to ask Silvia in a follow-up group video call, a new Skype feature.  During that group video call, it was incredible to watch students in Ontario and Manitoba listen and interact with Silvia as she spoke to us all from Florida.  This call allowed our students to experience together, the emotions shared by Silvia, as she answered their questions.  Silvia helped students learn how similar behaviours are mirrored today in social media sites such as Facebook.  Students connected, as they learned together in an authentic environment.  One of my student’s parents shared the impact this experience had on her daughter.  “When she came home, she talked and talked about the Holocaust.  She cried.”


After the call, I asked my students to share their thoughts on how Skype affects their learning.

When we Skyped with Silvia, what happens years ago, makes more sense. She told us way more than I’d read in a textbook. She made me put myself in Germany during the night of broken glass.

When you’re talking to someone on a Skype call, with people around the world telling their story, you realize how really brave they are, like Silvia. They inspire us to share more of our experiences.  Brad P.

Skyping helps us learn. When our class Skyped with Silvia Rosenthal, she told us more information about the holocaust and WWII than a textbook would have told us. This makes it exciting for us because we can see her expressions and it makes it more real.  We can feel her emotion.

In order for this to work, there must be preparation involved so you have a reason to Skype. Preparing for a Skype call is just as important as studying for a test or practicing a speech for your History project. We prepare because it helps us present the information the way we want it to sound. We also prepare so there is a serious conversation, and so we don’t stumble over words as we are speaking to our audience. Ethan J.

During the Skype call, the students are very quiet and involved.  We are very interested with the call because we are not just reading a boring old textbook.  We are hearing somebody’s story. When we had a Skype call with Silvia on Monday, we got into it, asking questions that we’d previously planned.  And we all know you cannot ask a textbook questions!  If you have access to this technology, why not use it?!  Alyssa H.

The group Skype feature enables our students to share powerful, emotional learning experiences together.  It’s another step in our year-long goal of creating a community of learners in the Idea Hive.

Creating Connections in the Idea Hive Classroom

The collaborative project with Clarence Fisher’s class from J.H.Kerr Public School in Snow Lake, Manitoba, is heading into its 7th week.  The connections have begun.  During the first week of school, using Google Forms, both classes from the Idea Hive completed a survey about their personal interests.  Last year, I created this survey as a way of getting to know my students; this year the Idea Hive students used it for the same purpose.  Once the survey was complete, all students had access to the results once the spreadsheet was “shared”.  After reading the results, looking for similarities and differences, each student wrote their first blog post.  Even though we’re 2 700 km apart, they were surprised with the results.

I have more in common with the Idea Hive then I thought!  Alyssa H.

During the next-step Skype call, we had an Idea Hive class discussion about commenting, highlighting how to continue the conversation.  In order to make sure every student received a comment on their blog from the opposite school, we assigned everyone the names of at least two students. Students were also encouraged to connect to any and all student in the Idea Hive.

Relationships are stronger when you can put a face to a name, and so the Flickr photo contest began.  Wearing the Idea Hive button, students posted pictures of themselves on the Idea Hive Flickr site.  Not only did students now know what each other looked like, but they also could see students in their respective communities, hanging out at the beach, cleaning horse stalls, outside the mining museum or in the soybean field. Students loved checking out the site to see who had posted – “Hey, she has the same shoes on as me!”.  Everyday lives, creating more connections.  The kids were thrilled to get coverage of the story in the local newspaper.

In preparation for Meet-the-Teacher night, I created this bulletin board to inform parents about the Idea Hive, and introduce them to their child’s new classmates from Snow Lake.  Parents also got to learn who the “other” grade 7/8 teacher is!

During our planning in the days before school started, Clarence had introduced me to the online book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined.  I loved working through this book for many reasons.  Rather than being filled with stories of how dangerous the web can be, it paints a picture of a beautiful community.  The web is a place where humans can share common interests with others; a place showing humans at their best.  During the classroom activities, students provided insight into how they use the web.  Following the reading, Clarence suggested all students create a piece of art based on the book.  Visual art is not my strength, so there was some discomfort from my end, knowing I was likely not going to be able to provide much guidance for my students.  But the kids didn’t need me; most loved the  freedom given to create their interpretation of the book’s message.

The thing I liked about my art work is that it was fun to make because I usually don’t do this kind of art at home or at school. Justin S.

Once the was blogs were posted, it was clear that Clarence and I had directed our students slightly differently.  While Clarence’s students focused on key words and their use of the web, my kids wrote about the theme of the book, and how they demonstrated this in their art.  They reflected on their work – what they liked, what they would change.  Since report cards comments were due in two weeks, I needed some reflective feedback from my students.  Working collaboratively challenges teachers who face different deadlines to creatively adapt projects to meet reporting requirements.  From the students’ perspective, they weren’t concerned with the difference; they were excited to have another opportunity to continue learning more about their new friends.

I am happy that you get to see what we did and  I’m looking forward to what you guys did. I  hope you guys are excited to see our stuff.   Cassidy

As this second set of comments are being written, it’s clear from the students’ questions that the connections are firmly in place. “When can I do a project with one of them as my partner?” and “Can I ask them to friend me on Facebook?”

Clearly they’re ready for our next steps which include a shared read aloud and a collaborative mapping assignment.  They’re having fun, they’re growing as a community of learners.  One of the Idea Hive students said it best….

The Internet brings us together ….isn’t technology amazing?  We are really not that different.  We both go to school so why doesn’t every class do this?  Avery B.


This year, the first week back to school has been filled with many “firsts” as my classroom in southwestern Ontario begins a year-long collaboration with Clarence Fisher’s (@glassbeed) class in Snow Lake, Manitoba.  While Clarence and I have collaborated with other schools before, they were for short-term projects.  In his recent post, Clarence clearly explains the value of a year-long collaboration versus the usual “sprints” as he calls them.  Idea Hive is the name of the community our students will meet and work in over the next year.  As our students develop their online communication skills, they’ll meet new friends and acquire the learning skills needed to become responsible digital citizens – skills that are essential in today’s global world.

As Clarence and I began our discussion, we looked for shared visions, curriculum and tools.  From there, we developed a number of specific projects that will take us into the first three or four months of school.  Other projects are percolating; we’ll revisit them as we move through each month.  Most importantly however, we planned to hit the ground running.

During the first day of school, my grade 8’s, who I’d taught last year, helped my grade 7’s as they were introduced to their Google Apps account.  Within a few days, our Idea Hive students completed an interest survey using Google Forms.  Through an introductory Skype session on day three, students got a chance to meet and ask questions as they briefly got to know each other.  Towards the end of the call, Clarence presented our Flickr photo competition.  Students are challenged to submit pictures of themselves taken in unique places, wearing the Idea Hive buttons.  Clarence had previously sent these buttons and magnets to me so we could distribute them to all students at the same time.  We were now connected.  Because of our very differing geographical locations, there are a lot of opportunities for picture settings unique to both classes. This is a great way for students to begin to learn about each other in their daily worlds.

Connecting the Idea Hive

Over a two day period, I felt like an orchestra conductor as I guided my students through the process of setting up their own WordPress blog.  Although I use WordPress, I’d never tried this feat with twenty-three 12- and 13-year-olds at once.  With patience on all our parts, we completed the task.  The students’ blogs will be an important communication tool throughout the year as students comment on each other’s posts.  This interaction begins next week, after students analyze the results of the interest survey to find similarities and differences with their Idea Hive peers.

There’s been a lot of “first” this week.  Showing our students we’re not afraid to take risks is an important part of the modeling process in our teaching practice.  We hope our students model our code of conduct when kinks and wrinkles occur in our plans (we know they will!) as they develop their problem-solving skills.

On a personal note, this weekend I thought about the importance of modeling this very same viewpoint as I experienced another exciting “first”.  My 17-year-old son is a new pilot, a recent  graduate from the Air Cadet program, and he intended on flying his plane to an airstrip closer to home.  I had the opportunity to go with him as his first passenger.  His mentors, both in their 70’s, knew he was ready for the flight home, and therefore so was I.  At the same time, I was nervous, realizing my child could not rely on me for help, but thrilled seeing that he has the confidence to know he doesn’t need it.

Learning with, and from our students and children sends a strong message.  We have confidence in them.  Taking risks inspires those around us to do the same, as they develop into life-long learners.

On the runway, full power – take-off!  It’s going to be an amazing flight.