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.

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… 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.

Learning is a Global Collaborative Classroom Project with @scmorgan

Reflections by Susan Carter Morgan and Heather Durnin

Heather Durnin

Learning is about conversation. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Ontario cohort of the Professional Learning Practices (PLP) project. This project brings educators together to participate in self-directed professional development involving 21st century learning environments. By helping to create “communities of learning”, educators connect through a Ning for the opportunity to have important online conversations about the changing learning environment.

As part of the “Avon-Maitland After School Special” group cohort,  I had many conversations with Susan Carter Morgan. Susan is a grade eight teacher at the Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia, and was one of the resource people brought into the project to initiate and help develop discussions. As a result of our shared interest in a classroom where learning was more inquiry-based, we decided to develop a collaborative project.

Students from our two schools were grouped together to study an issue of social justice using web 2.0 tools.  These tools help students put the best practice of collaborative learning into play by working with others to problem solve.  Tools such as VoiceThread allow teachers to practice differentiated assessment. Being socially connected, students believe their contributions matter and they feel a stronger degree of responsibility to support their new partners. Students want an authentic audience to express themselves to.

Over a period of a few months, Susan and I developed the project, setting deadlines for each step and creating checklists and rubrics. Research would be collected and organized using Google Docs and Skype, projects would be presented using VoiceThread, and students would post comments on other groups’ projects in the final step.

During the month leading up to the project introduction, my students were involved in several activities focused on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Throughout the year, they had been immersed in questioning structure to develop critical thinking through board directed PD. Students in Virginia read To Kill a Mockinbird and studied social injustices. As a result, students came into the project from different perspectives, providing a rich mosaic of background knowledge.

To begin, my students set up a shared Google Docs research templates with their partners in Virginia.  Respectful discussions began, including topic choice and the development of their essential research questions. The students’ process mirrored the steps Susan and I had practiced a month earlier.

Using Skype in the classroom, students introduced themselves and developed relationships in and outside of school hours. Many days, rather than go outside for break, groups of students from both schools would stay in and Skype with each other. The chatting and laughter in the room was beautiful as students from both countries formed friendships not only from within their own groups, but others in the class as well. Meanwhile, Susan and I provided feedback as the students’ shared documents grew.

Yes, there were glitches along the way. Some students from both schools were away for extended periods, others struggled with the idea of having to develop their own research questions. They wanted to be told. But as the weeks moved on, the students pulled together and our classrooms became one. Their ability to develop and work collaboratively moved the project along, even if one of us couldn’t physically be in the classroom with them on a daily basis.

As the research was completed, students in Virginia set up the shared VoiceThread for the final presentation. Each group member posted a Creative Commons image and added commentary based on the research. Once the completed VoiceThreads were posted on the project wiki, students posted comments on other groups’ projects. In celebration,  our classes came together once again via Skype for an ice-cream sundae party. Afterwards, students posted their reflections about the project on a VoiceThread.

Every time we have a conversation with someone else, we open new opportunities to grow and to learn. So what did they learn? Our students started to think more about the meaning of community and the world than just themselves. They developed a global conscience and relationships with each other that continue on, even though the project is complete. The students however expressed it best.

“To me this project was a lot more than just trying to get a good grade. It was so much more. Because our social issues project was successful, despite some minor setbacks along the way, I think our class, and Mrs. Carter Morgan’s class in Virginia, have paved the way for a new generation of learning. No longer will students have to choose groups from their own classroom. Teachers now have the opportunity to assign group members from thousands of miles away, and that to me is extraordinary.”  Shawn K., Grade 8, Turnberry Central Public School

Thanks to the connection made through a PLP project, students and teachers from different countries have indeed experienced something very extraordinary.

Susan Carter Morgan (@scmorgan)

Though I have been involved in several collaborative, online projects with teachers, I had never tried one that involved so many levels of thinking, so many tools, nor to be distributed over such a long time period (more than we initially envisioned). However, by the end, I must say this social justice unit with the Turnberry School was the most satisfying for both my students and me.

My students had only recently begun bringing their laptops to schools, so their experience with online tools had been limited to Google Docs. Though in hindsight, I wish we had helped the students organize their thoughts a little more on their documents, most figured out ways to communicate using color codes and bullets. I loved watching their thinking develop as they found resources and had to determine what information to use and in what order. Learning Skype and using it to connect with students from Heather’s class was fascinating. Some immediately jumped in knowing how to use the tool to gather information. Others seemed shy and reluctant to share.

Susan Carter Morgan

The project lent itself to conversations about time management, online digital “footprints”, critical thinking, and presentation skills. Yet, each topic fit easily and seamlessly into the day to day learning.

On a personal note, I found the tools extremely helpful when– mid-project –my father died. From another city, I was able to check my students’ progress online and use Skype to connect with them. Heather even Skyped into my class, teaching my students the next step. It was all pretty amazing, now that I think back. Our project embodied the true use of online tools–the ability to connect and communicate wherever and whenever. Though Heather and I often “chatted” in the evenings to check in on the project, we soon found the students doing the same–and learning about each other in the process.

By the end of the project, even the students who had expressed frustration initially were sharing what they had learned. One student wrote in her final portfolio that the project had been the most meaningful “in all her years at FA.” She said the learning to collaborate with students from another country on a topic that she wanted to learn about made it powerful. The project for her didn’t seem like school, and yet she said, she learned more about thinking, organizing, and presenting than she ever had on anything else. Her sense of pride was palpable as she talked to other teachers in our school, expressing her joy of learning.

Working in ways that empowers students brings new issues/concerns to the classroom, such as digital literacy and safety. However, what better way to “teach” these than through a project that adds meaning to the students’ lives. This was such an authentic way to learn.

Thanks Susan for your comments, friendship and great conversations.  H. D.

Social Media Supports Student Initiative

Over the past year as my grade 7/8 students have been building their digital literacy skills, they are clearly showing that they are also becoming responsible digital citizens.  They understand the importance of “think before you submit” and “Creative Commons”.  Recently as they prepared to post comments on other students’ online projects, they edited their writing, working towards being concise, relevant and respectful.  We studied and compared the quality of various comments found online, including examples of my own, and they practiced their responses using various news stories discussed in class.  Their first big leap into the digital world was in response to an invitation from @charbeck, a teacher in Winnipeg, to view and post comments on his students’ social justice videos.  They loved the opportunity and the videos.

Some of the videos created by the Winnipeg students included recordings from an “expert” contacted by the students.  This component of the video inspired some of my students to venture further on their own.  This past week, using various social networking tools such as wikis and Facebook, some my students have independently contacted the authors of the books they are currently reading in their book club groups (Natasha Friend, Michael Harmon).  I had not asked them to do this, or even suggested it, yet these students chose to write on their own, outside of school hours, to an authentic audience.  I am grateful for the responses back from the authors and proud of my students for their initiative.  We will follow-up with an offer from one of the authors to Skype with our class.  My students’ emerging skills in social networking has helped them develop self-confidence in their role as writers.  Surprisingly, these students are not my strongest readers or writers.  They are however, students with a voice.

Leading the Way

As my classroom walls flatten, my students are taking their learning outside.  I am the teacher, yet I am proud to step aside as they lead the way out the door into a digital world I know they are prepared for.  They have taken far more from my lessons than what I had hoped for.  They have safely and responsibly adopted social media as a valuable educational tool.

Postscript:  Natasha Friend is skyping with our class June 8.  The students are so excited!


Backchanneling is a learning strategy you can use to keep students effectively engaged in a lesson.  Similar to a chatroom, students have a continuing “chat” alongside various formats (lecture, video).  After reading various blogs by a primary, intermediate and high-school teacher, I noticed the comments regarding the value of the process were similar.  As students backchannel, they collaborate, communicate, and connect to each other and their thinking.  Students who are reluctant hand-raisers are more apt to participate.

TodaysMeet is a free and secure site you can set up for your students to meet and backchannel.  It’s easy to monitor and sign up.  A major concern of any teacher (myself included) is that students would just chat and not focus on the lesson.  Before we began, my students understood that all comments posted were visible to me along with their username and time.  They were reminded of the appropriate use of technology and the importance of staying on topic.  We discuss this routinely throughout the year as they use Google Apps, wiki sites and blog comments, so I trusted they were ready.

When signing up for a meeting in TodaysMeet, you’re asked to provide a class name (I used TCPS) and then given a url.  I posted the url on our class wiki for easy access.  After the meeting, the transcript is available to print if needed, and it stays posted for however long you specify (up to a year maximum).

Before logging in, students were given the following instructions:  “While viewing the science video, post comments on what surprised you and questions you have.”  Students entered their TS#, typed hello, and jumped in.  Maximum message is 140 characters.

As the conversation continued, students collaborated by helping each other with answers to questions.  They connected their learning to other subject areas.

I was surprised that air was a fluid. ts02 at 9:11 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

So this also causes earthquakes? ts19 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Its convection. ts28 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

That’s like our geography.ts41 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

How does such a little substance like fluid, move the earth to create earthquakes? TS30 at 9:16 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Well earthquakes involve magma because they start way down in the earth’s crust. Magma is fluid. ts43 at 9:17 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

When the video was finished, I asked students to post their thoughts on the process of backchanneling.

Backchanneling helped because if I had a question during anything, people can share opinions or answers. ts36 at 9:30 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Back channeling let us all contribute our thinking, without being loud. We got to see other’s opinion, and it let us help each other. Ts29 at 9:30 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling was helpful because some of the people in the class said things that I didn’t even think about. Ts45 at 9:29 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling was helpful because it shared questions and things that surprised people that I might have forgotten or not even have thought. ts14 at 9:29 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Back channeling is the best.  It helps me to say what I think during the movie so I don’t forget. ts11 at 9:28 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling provides insight to the teacher for next-step lesson planning.  Transcripts posted on a wiki could be reviewed by students who miss class.  As well, the conversation could be continued.  Comments from my own students show that backchanneling is another example of the importance of collaborative learning and the engagement factor of technology.

Bored of Book Reports? Go Glogster!

No need to fear the groans from your students after assigning the dreaded “book report”.  This month, my Gr. 7/8 students enjoyed discovering and using Glogster EDU for their summative book club assignment. Just the name alone was enough to pull them in, but after showing them an example Glogster I created one snow day based on our class read aloud novel, they were sold.  I was entertained while marking.

Grad photo day and Glogster
Using the webcam and netbooks, students create their “poster” book report.

Glogster is a virtual poster.  It’s a safe and secure site, offering free classroom accounts which your students can access from home.  Users can post pictures, videos, webcam and audio segments, sounds and text.  There’s something for everyone.  I’ll stop writing.  They can show you better than I can tell you.  Take a look at a few from TS30 and TS11 based on the project outline.