Polar Bears & Student Action with @amckiel

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I was putting together the final touches for a geography assignment I’d planned to present to the students the next morning.  While it was similar to an outline I’d used a few years ago, I decided to scratch it after I read two tweets from  Andy McKiel.

And so I read his blog, Chillin’ with Nanuq for more details.  After travelling to Churchill, Manitoba, Andy was embarking on a life-changing experience – the polar bear migration. In the fall each year, the polar bears congregate along the shores of Hudson Bay so they can go out on the sea ice and hunt seals.  Due to global warming, this freeze-up is happening later in the fall, and the ice is breaking up earlier each spring. The situation has become so severe, that polar bears are now listed on Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Working with Edmodo and scientists from Polar Bears International, Andy would be sharing his experiences from the windows of Tundra Buggy One, via daily live video broadcasts. While this area outside of Churchill is isolated geographically, Andy would bring this issue into our rural classroom outside of Wingham, Ontario, via Edmodo’s webcast. This was a compelling story that aligned with the original project criteria.

And so…project re-write.

The next morning, I started class with one of Andy’s images – a polar bear dangling from a helicopter as it’s being brought to D-20 (Polar Bear jail) in Churchill before being taken to a more suitable habitat.

amckiel

The students were shocked and disturbed.  They were ready to learn.

amckiel

After spending a few days reading Andy’s blog and the excellent educational resources at Polar Bears International, the students soon discovered they could help the polar bears by adopting one – symbolically!  As a class of 31, they unanimously agreed to reach the top fundraising goal of $250 on their own.  Due date: November 30.

The following week, when Andy returned to Winnipeg, he Skyped into our classroom to answer many unanswered questions the students had prepared for him.  They were also keen to share their “adoption” plan with Andy, whose blog posts and images had inspired them.

While we know the importance of planning a project outline and success criteria ahead of time, sometimes, however inconvenient it may be, changing those plans leads to an even greater learning opportunity. When we connect our students to narratives shared by inspirational people outside of our classroom walls, our students develop a deeper understanding.

As Andy recently voiced in his K-12 Keynote presentation, “Use your experiences to connect with other people in other places to share learning in meaningful ways. The learning becomes an event.”

“The things that motivate our students, and the things that they remember are the things that are most important to them.”  

We don’t always know how the story will end. Go with your instincts and let the story, with its unknown ending, guide the learning and inquiry as our students connect and learn.

And the proof? Today is November 30, and this group of grade 7/8 students met their goal of raising $250. In fact, they raised $293 on their own. Most importantly, every student participated. Andy skyped in once again to participate in their celebration while my students drank Coke from white cans and ate white donuts. While my students may not remember the themes of geography, they will remember what they did, on their own, to make a difference.  Thanks, Andy, for turning their learning into an event.

SueLecatsas

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.

Powerful Holocaust Learning Experiences & Connections

My class recently finished reading the non-fiction novel, Ten Marks and a Train Ticket: Benno’s Escape to Freedom. It’s the story of Benno (9) and Heinz (13), two brothers who were put on a train in 1939 Berlin, by their parents, as a desperate gesture to send them to safety, away from Nazi Germany. This first-person narrative, told by Benno, chronicles their heartbreaking struggle to survive their travels across a continent on the brink of war, and the pain they confronted when learning of the loss of their parents and young brother, Charlie, at Aushwitz. Benno eventually moved to Toronto, Ontario, a few hours drive from where my students live.

The story is written by Benno’s three daughters, Susy Goldstein, Gina Hamilton and Wendy Share. After watching this video interview with the authors and their father, we learn how important they felt it was to have a story about the Holocaust told from a boy’s perspective, since so many stories feature female protagonists. Please take the 9 min. needed to view this video – you will understand why my students were so moved by Benno’s story.

As a follow-up activity, students blogged about the most powerful moments for them. They used Timetoast to create a timeline, and included images with the appropriate Creative Commons license. One student, Brad, found a very relevant photo on flickr which did not fit in the “free to use” guidelines. The image showed the interior of a German train from that era, the same type of train that Benno took to escape Germany. In the book, there is a harrowing scene where Benno and his brother hide under the wooden seats as the Nazi soldiers search the cars. With my help, we contacted the owner of the image and asked for permission. Not only did Brad receive permission from Henry Law, but Henry posted a comment on Brad’s blog with more information about the Kindertransport. From Sweden to Ontario, a student connected and the sharing continued.

When I showed the students the video interview with Benno and his daughters, you could have heard a pin drop. They were clearly relieved that Benno was still living, and amazed at how young he looked for someone in their 80’s. Afterwards, I told them I’d been in contact with Benno’s daughter, Susy Goldstein. Their eyes widened even more when I explained that any questions we had for Benno would be forwarded onto him by Susy. We would make a connection. In groups, students created and presented their questions to the class, and the class chose the ones they felt were the best.

Within in a week, we had a response back from Benno.

Dear Heather,

I was delighted to receive your email and of course somewhat taken aback by the apparent interest of your class. I will try and answer the questions as best as I can.

1) Are you still connected to some of the friends you made in Birmingham and London?

Yes I am still in touch with a few of the friends I made in Birmingham and in London, however many have already passed away.

2) What were your daughters’ reactions to your story when you told them at age 9?

I think my daughters couldn’t imagine having to go through what I did when I told them that the last time I saw my parents and little brother Charlie was when I was 9 years old. I know that they all have told their children when they were 9 years old as well my story.

3) How hard was it on you, and on your friends (Jewish and non-Jewish), when Hitler enforced his unfair laws?

The non-Jews of course were not affected. My school was closed as were many Jewish schools and we had a temporary school that I had to go to. It was awful not being able to play outside or go swimming in the local pool All because I was Jewish. I didn’t really understand why but I remember that my parents were really worried at the time.

4) We were shocked to see the swastika on your car in Toronto so many years after WW II. Why do you think people would still feel that way?

I was most certainly shocked to find a swastika on my car. To this day I don’t know who did it. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of graffitti found in Toronto aon buildings and I cannot believe that it is still happening.

5) There are so many important messages in your story. What is the key one you wanted to get across to adults and students?

I think that bullying and hatred for any other religion or group can lead to the terrible things which happened in Germany. We must make sure that this never happens again and if you ever see anyone being bullied you should try and stop it so it never gets to such a terrible situation.

6) If you could go back and say one thing to yourself when you started this journey, what would it be?

When we left to go on our journey I don’t think I ever really said goodbye to my parents and little brother because I believed that we would all be together very soon. I feel awful when I think about what happened to my brother and that we never said a proper good-bye.

Finally, my students knew this may be too private of a question, and so they asked me if it would be all right to ask. I said I’d pass it on, and let Susy decide. They’ve grown close to Benno and Heinz, and so they wondered,

How did Heinz pass away?

My brother passed away from natural causes, but I am sure the incidents described in the book were a contributory factor.

Today is November 9th, while I am writing this, and it is the day that I will always remember, when our home and shop were ransacked and severely damaged by the Nazis in 1938. Please remind your class that I hope my story will allow them to learn that to hate anybody because of their religion or because they are part of any group can create a world of horror.

Benno

I now wish I’d waited for them to post their blogs after they had received these comments back from Benno. Based on their reactions when I shared the email response from Benno, I can only imagine how much voice and passion would have been added as they wrote.

I’m grateful for the willingness of people to share their experiences in authentic ways with my students. I’ve learned that I just need to ask. As a result, our small, rural and remote student community continues to connect far beyond our classroom walls. Our students experience rich and powerful learning.

Left Foot, Right Foot: Student Advice from @charbeck

Each year I get excited about designing a new math project for my gr. 7/8’s data unit. Last year, Super Mario was our theme. After meeting some inspirational teachers who are also runners at #unplugd11, I had help from @charbeck, @aforgrave and @AlanaCallan as we designed a cross-curricular math project using the students’ running data. The goal however, had to be on improvement. Every student needed to feel some success, whether it was distance or pace.

So each day in September, my students brought their bright yellow duotangs out to the track. As the students completed their run (which increased daily), I called out their time for them to record. Using Cool Running’s Pace Calculator, the students determined their daily pace.

Once October rolled in, we got to our data unit in math. Lessons included how to use Google Spreadsheets and formulas. Finally – I got to introduce the project. I was excited, but wondered, would they be? I got my answer when several students asked, “Can I start this tonight?” And they did.

I created and shared videos on how to create a spreadsheet and how to embed their spreadsheet in their blog. After reading their blogs, it was clear that this collaboratively designed project had met the goal: students were proud of themselves. They were runners. Jacob, Alyssa, Ed

Once the student blogs were posted, they pro-rated their pace to the distance required to run a marathon. Then I shared @charbeck’s results from his recently completed Toronto Waterfront Marathon. My kids were impressed! And shocked…when they found out Chris is also a grade 8 math teacher in Winnipeg. “Does he know Mr. Fisher (my Idea Hive teaching partner)”?

The next day after preparing questions, students had the chance to ask Mr. Harbeck about his preparation, race and recovery via Skype. One of my quieter students, who had recently completed his first 10 k, was jumping with excitement after Mr. Harbeck asked, and encouraged him on his own success.

Chris was humble, humorous, encouraging and inspiring.

After the call, when I asked the students, “What were you most surprised about?”, they shared what they learned from Mr. Harbeck…

The training is more enjoyable than the race.
Marathon running is a mental game broken down into 10 mile increments with a little prayer at mile 30.
Marathon runners have smelly gear and wear socks with an R on the foot (so they know what foot it goes on).
Mr. Harbeck shared his key strategy for completing the race: Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It’s a mental game.

Thank-you to my #unplugd11 inspirational team for helping frame this project where all of my students experienced success.
Thank-you, Chris, for making my students feel so special and emphasizing the importance of positive thinking and setting goals.

Unplug’d 11: 25 kilometres later

It’s been six weeks since the unplug’d11 community said goodbye and we all headed back to our regular lives. But we were not the same people returning to our normal routine. Many of us had formed friendships with people we had never met before based on common passions, and we had experienced an openness with each other that we believed was rare in a classical PD venue.

For Alana Callan and me, it started on a train headed to an off-the grid retreat known as The Edge outside of South River. During a short “exchange seats” format, we were randomly seated with Kelly Power and John Evans.  We were suppose to be talking about….hmmmm….Tom, what was that topic you assigned? Instead, we found our shared passion for running. We were talking about how people connect with educators online, and John discussed how he chooses people to follow on twitter by checking their profile to see what resonates with him. He used running as an example. The conversation that ensued sparked something in all of us which paved the pathway for our friendships. For some of us, it was the encouragement needed to get back into long distance running. It was the conversation where connections were beginning.

During the next 2 mornings Alana and I continued our sharing during our morning runs.  The off-the-grid natural setting reminded Alana of a upcoming opportunity to run a 25 km. trail run hosted by a similar retreat in Mattawa a mere six weeks away. At the time we were nowhere near physically ready, but the conversations and coaching that followed from Chris Harbeck and John proved to be the spark we needed. A genuine connection. Over the next 6 weeks, we trained hard, planned and were motivated by our unplug’d team members. Chris, Andy Forgrave, John and Kelly continued to post words of encouragement as each of us independently worked towards the deadline. On September 24, we completed our goal.

So now we’re in the car driving home writing this blog post on an iPad. Sore, tired and proud, we’re both wearing big grins and reflecting on why this was such an emotional and empowering run for us. For starters, when we met up on Friday, we instantly picked up right where our f2f friendship left off. On Saturday, as we struggled up that gruelling, slimy, muddy wall of a hill at kilometre 18, we both felt Chris, Andy, John and Kelly pushing us on. And I could hear John’s voice in his last tweet. “Enjoy Enjoy Enjoy. Trail running is THE BEST!! It will fly by. Take some pics to share!”

When we finished the race, we knew with certainty that we wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on such a challenge without the unplug’d experience. We wanted to stay connected and saw this as a way to do so with a purpose that mattered.

There were similarities between this experience and unplug’d. At both events we were truly unplugged. As we prepared for unplug’d, we began our connection by sharing our uncertainties with each other. Was our topic worthy? Were we? The preparation for the race was similar. But because of the relationship that developed over those three days at The Edge, we already had the commitment – that was solidified at unplug’d. We knew we were going to get there, and our unplug’d cheering squad knew it too as they regularly checked in with us.

When we left The Edge, many of us were adamant that we didn’t want to lose these new connections, the sharing, the collaboration. For some of us the link is running, ds106 radio and math. Yes, math! Our next project involves a classroom collaborative math project with Chris and Andy’s students using our students’ running data.

And so we wonder, how do others maintain the magic of the unplug’d connection when we all live so far apart?

“Potential for Genius is Carried Inside Everyone”

As I was getting ready for school this past week, I pulled out my “1st day of math” folder. Tucked inside is an article I read to my gr. 7/8 students in our first math class of the year. It’s not your usual “tips for math success” or “review of long division”. It’s a copy of an article published in 2007 in our provincial farm paper, The Ontario Farmer. “Potential for Genius is Carried Inside Everyone”, was written by Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot, a local writer who farms in Huron County with her husband and children. It’s a beautiful piece with a powerful message for our students. When I read it, I always have to catch myself before my voice begins to crack. I found it just as emotional this year. As usual, the room became very quiet as I moved through the story. However, what was different this year was the response from my students. When I finished reading, one of my gr. 8 boys starting clapping. Slowly, quietly, sincerely. Soon others joined in. And before long, the entire class was smiling as they connected with their inner genius.

After receiving that reaction, I wanted this story to be shared with other teachers, so I contacted Lisa through Facebook to see if it was posted anywhere online. It wasn’t, but after some searching, Lisa found and sent me the copy stored on her computer.

“Potential for Genius is Carried Inside Everyone” by Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot, November 01/07

Once there were four sisters who grew up on a dairy farm in Huron County. They loved their dad and worked hard beside him milking cows and bringing in the hay. When talking about his daughters, the father would say with pride, “They’re hard workers!”

Not surprisingly, all four girls grew up to be just that.

One of those four girls struggled with mathematics at school. She told her parents about it and they told her not to worry about it. “Just try and pass.” They weren’t overly negative but neither were they very encouraging and her whole life, she believed she was dense when it came to arithmetic. She never got good grades in the subject and to this day, freezes up when she has to do a difficult calculation.

The farm girl married and had daughters of her own. Believing she was ‘bad at math’ she knew she’d never be able to help her daughters with their math homework so she told her daughters something different than what she heard growing up.

She told her daughters they were geniuses at math.

The girls believed it. They come home with ‘A’ grades on their math tests. When asked what her favourite subject is, her older daughter will answer: math.

The mother knows that they really aren’t geniuses but that doesn’t matter. The girls believe they are. When they come across a difficult problem they don’t get frustrated and quit, believing they are incapable of answering the problem. Instead, her girls believe they have the brainpower to figure it out. So they do.

This story came to me after hearing a blurb from Canadian Writer Alberto Manguel who was speaking on CBC radio about how our culture makes kids stupid. He suggested that we are born intelligent, fully capable of successfully living in the world. However, today’s culture seems intent on making us believe we are stupid.

I did it just today! Facing a shortage of feed since there wasn’t enough haylage to top the silo, Farmer Freddy decided to pasture the heifers on the alfalfa fields. He purchased more steel fence posts, shock wire and strung a temporary fence around the field. The heifers were introduced to their new grassland and happily started munching down the rich forage. Each day they are out saves Farmer Freddy feeding one large square hay bale. The system worked so well, he decided to give the milk cows a field too and feed them less TMR (Total Mixed Ration). This, of course, disrupts the whole TMR concept where cows receive a carefully calculated ration with each foodstuff meticulously weighed and delivered to the cows.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I questioned him, my voice laden with doubt.

Farmer Freddy just looked at me and said he’d been feeding cows for a long time. He knew what he was doing.

I felt a little bit ashamed, for I was doing the very thing Alberto Manguel warned about—I was being negative; promoting ‘stupid’ instead of encouraging intelligence; tearing down instead of building up.

Truth is that since we bought this dairy farm 10 years ago, Farmer Freddy has successfully managed this farm, raising healthy cows and increasing profitability year after year. Perhaps it’s time I told Farmer Freddy he is a ‘farming genius.’ Who knows what that might lead to?

Fred and Lisa's Dairy Herd

Personally, I think we should always treat each other like we treat babies. From the minute a baby is born, we are teaching them new things in the shelter of our loving embraces. We let them know with our gentle hands, our smiling faces and our loving words that they are amazing creatures as they learn to eat, walk, talk, read and write. A first step is greeted with loud cheers. A first word is met with huge smiles and big hugs.

When do we start telling our children that: “math is too hard” or “that book is too long to read” or “that’s too far to run?” Why not tell them they were born with great brains to figure out that math problem and healthy legs to run the distance?

When God knit us together in our mother’s womb, He gave each one of us special gifts and abilities to fulfill His purpose for us in this life. We didn’t all receive the same gifts in the same measure. Yet by the very nature of forming us, the Creator of the World believed we were worth making.

It’s our universal role, then, to believe in the intelligence and the inherent value of others. And tell them so.

Lisa shares a powerful message that would resonate with any student, urban or rural. I’ll end this post just as Lisa ended her Facebook post to me, “Wishing you wisdom and patience as you start another school year!”

Using Yodio for Digital Storytelling & Poetry

During the last few weeks of school, I had my students play with a few new-to-us web 2.0 storytelling tools that Alan Levine introduced in his 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story wiki. Although we first tried JayCut, many of the students couldn’t get the program to load, so we moved onto Yodio.

When students registered for a free account, they were asked to provide their email address (yes) and a cell phone number (NO!) which the user is expected to record from.  Instead, I had my students record what they wanted on each image as an mp3 using Aviary (part of their Google Apps) or Audacity.  The mp3 can then be uploaded and added to the appropriate image.

As students discovered the steps needed to create the mp3 and upload it to their Yodio, they added their “how to” steps into a shared google docs.  This is the part that I loved the best about discovering new programs – students sharing their learning.

We used Yodio to visualize their poetry. As part of our science unit on ecosystems and watersheds, our class had the opportunity to plant trees for our local conservation authority and a farmer. Afterwards, students wrote free-verse poetry on the experience, then chose relevant royalty-free images for their Yodio.  Students were guided to choose a an appropriate number of images based on the length of their poem, and then record their poem as an mp3.

Tyler’s Branches of Hope (embedded in his blog)

Kori’s Caring Hands (posted on the Yodio site)

We also used Yodio to digitalize a shared writing story.  Students were shown an image taken by Colin Jagoe and as a class we brainstormed ideas for the beginning, middle and end in a shared google doc (another Alan Levine idea). Students then moved into their chosen groups of 2 or 3 and wrote their story based on Colin’s image and any ideas from the shared google doc.  After the shared writing was completed, each group found additional royalty-free images for their story.  Next, they divided their story into a script and recorded it as an mp3.

Colin Jagoe: Holding the Line

Ed, Tanner & Tyler’s narrative: The Forest Race

Yodio provides embed codes that do not work however smoothly with WordPress.  It does however allow you to autopost, but that wasn’t my preferred option, since the entire blog post was published online as soon as you hit post.  I’d prefer it to be saved as a draft first for further editing.  As an alternative, you can do what I did, add a hyperlink to the Yodio site.

Now that we’ve got a good idea of how to use this program, and the students like it, I’ll add it as another option for my students to use in order to support their learning and presentation skills first term.

Unpacking from #Unplugd11

Sitting on the train, on the last leg home, I want to secure the magic of UnPlugd11. It’s nourishment that I’ll continue to reflect upon as I challenge myself in my personal and professional life.

Held at the Edge, a beautiful “off-the-grid” retreat in Algonquin Park, Unplugd11 was a three-day meeting of 37 Canadian education advocates – teachers, administrators, parents, trustees. We all came prepared with an essay and narrative entitled, “Why ________ Matters”, which we shared with our peers for further editing. No internet, no cell service, no devices. We were truly unplugged, but very much connected.

During the group meetings, the layers were peeled back as participants shared successes, stumbles, frustrations, questions, guidance and feedback. We were challenged to travel down new paths, even if they were steep.  Disturbance.  From “Cut the fat” and “Claim it, you’re the expert” to “I love you guys”. We recharged.

On a morning run down the long gravel road, out in the blue Swift canoe, sitting on the dock as the afternoon passed by. These were the settings that framed some of those moments when the magic appeared with these passionate collaborators. It was a place where I finally got to meet my teaching partner, and friend, Clarence Fisher, face-to-face.

Some of the first items on my list as I begin to unpack from the #unplugd11 process:

  • Read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, recommended to me by @Stephen_Hurley during an evening conversation.
  • Dig through the Livescribe instructional resources. First use for me, pencasts to support students in my triple-grade math class.
  • Put apples in my basket (@joevans)! Register & train for the Run-off-the-Grid trail race with Alana Callan on Sept.  24. If we can’t convince @charbeck to be our pace bunny, we’re counting on him for his continued inspiration. Anyone else in?
  • Absorb, reflect and question each message in the soon-to-be-published, “Why ___ Matters” essays. How does each message relate to my students, beliefs, and professional development?
  • Deepen connections with the participants, and other educators who push my thinking, as we continue to take risks in an effort to transform our practice for our students.

My friend, Andrew Forgrave recently wrote about unleashing creativity. “Frameworks and boundlessness need to co-exist. Discipline and chaos can sit side-by-side and juxtapose to make something.” Reassurance for taking risks. Moving forward with renewed confidence, I’ll share the messages that for me, define unplugd11. Thank-you Rodd, Ben and the entire organizing committee for a memorable experience.

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.

Experiencing the Realities of War Through Life In the Trenches

In today’s world, when asked about technology, we think of hardware like smart phones and tablets or web 2.0 tools. Back in the early 1900’s, technology advancement led to the end of trench warfare.  As part of our WW 1 history unit, my gr. 7/8 students learned first-hand how soldiers used technology as they experienced life in the trenches.

Students traveled on a 2.5 hour bus ride to the Outdoor Trench Warfare and Living History Site in rural Tillsonburg to experience the hardships faced by Canadian WW I soldiers in the trenches.  They were guided by award-winning history teacher Robin Barker-James in the strategies used by soldiers as they struggled to survive and defend what they believed in.

As my student, Brad P., described it, “Robin Barker-James has a farm just outside of Tillsonburg where he and his Gr.10 history class dug replica trenches from WWI to host schools and teach them about trench warfare.  The trenches at Mr. Barker-James’ farm are very real, in fact so real that the Canadian military has trained there before heading to Afghanistan. There was even a movie shot there.”

During the morning session, students learned how to fight using bayonets and grenades, and Robin shared his collection of authentic WW 1 artifacts with the class.

In the afternoon, my girls played the role of the Canadians, and attacked the German-held trenches (my male students), “armed” with replica grenades, Ross rifles and the coveted Lewis machine gun. While the reenactment was without danger, students clearly began to feel the fear, chaos and discomfort that was reality for the generations before them.

Robin has guided over 70 000 students in the past decade through his site.  He specializes in providing a common sense, hands-on and concrete learning experience for students studying war.  The following day, I asked students to write about the experience, including a monologue and the lessons they had learned.

From the “Canadian” girls….

Nataja:  I learned that we need to work together as a team to survive.

Alyssa: The helmets were very hard to keep on your head, especially when you had to crawl.  And, they often dug into the back of your neck, which was very uncomfortable. I was tired and I was getting frustrated with  my team, but in a way that is a good thing.  It made us see some of what the soldiers had to go through in a daily basis.

Kori ‘s monologue:  The waiting is unbearable, because I don’t know what exactly am I waiting for. Am I waiting for excitement, or am I just waiting for this to be over? I think the most clear message was that war is not a game. What we did in the field at Robin’s farm may not have been real, but turning the corners in the trenches was still nerve wracking. I can’t begin to imagine what that would be like in a real war.

And from the “German” boys…

Iain’s monologue:  I feel sick, my stomachs churning due to the nerve racking moments about to happen. The enemy is almost here, I can hear them. I’m really scared, even though I have my best friend Isaac a few metres from me.  

Jason: I learned that war causes just as much psychological damage as physical damage. I learned about the hardships the men had to endure in and outside of the trench line. The saddest part was when Robin told me how many men had died for our freedom.  It was the most interesting field trip that involved learning I have ever been on.

Tyler: The experience of that day will never leave me….. Like Mr. Barker-James said, “If you are asked to send yourself or your kids into warfare, you better have a pretty darn good reason to.” I don’t think it could have been said better.

Can you feel it? These students, who 24 hrs. earlier saw trench warfare as a game, now have a more realistic understanding as they question the validity of war – exactly what Robin intended. My gr. 7 students are keen to travel back to Tillsonburg next year to participate in Robin’s re-enactments of the War of 1812 and WW II. There’s even a few gr. 8’s, who will no longer be at my school, begging to return with us. Powerful and authentic learning.

Flickr slideshow