This morning there were 3 big boxes in the office with my name on them. The sides were labelled with the big M…as in Makerbot. I was nervous – I wasn’t sure I could set this system up. But by the end of the day, at my students’ insistence, and with my teaching partner’s support (Marc Westra), these kids had taken over, finding the YouTube video I’d told them about that guided the process. My Gr. 8’s unpacked and put together F.E. Madill’s MakerBot 3-D Replicator 2X Printer. Some of them I expected to be involved; others surprised me. These kids are fearless; I needed that. Can’t wait to see what our students build with this machine!
I haven’t done Book Clubs (also called Literature Circles) with my intermediate students for a couple of years now for a variety of reasons (size of class, off-task chatting) but I decided to try them again, with a few changes. Glad I did.
Getting back into Book Clubs was a bit of a daunting task. I have several (many!) boys in my grade 8 class this year who boast about their hatred for reading and writing. Luckily I have a few good books up my sleeve for these tough nuts!
Similar to previous years, I used smaller pieces of work to model and practice making connections, determining emerging theme, inferring and asking evaluative questions. And similar to those boys that say they hate books, their written answers looked like carcasses after the feast. A few bones, nothing meaty.
It’s during the book club discussions where the rich conversations and evidence of understanding usually pour out of many students. I saw the same phenomenon recently, during an observation of a 12U english class where students had to write, then discuss, an issue. The girls wrote and wrote, while most of the guys sat back. When it came time to discuss the work, again, many of the boys said little until they were asked by the girls in the group to contribute and clarify their answers. Then their opinions poured out. With that in mind, I decided this year to take a colleague’s advice and sit in on each meeting rather than having all 6 or 7 going at once while I circulated. I didn’t want to miss any of these conversations which I would eventually be using as a reading assessment piece.
Books were chosen by the students, and groups were formed based on those choices. I set up a small table and chairs at the back of my classroom (yes, it’s crowded). During the week 1 meetings, I was part of the discussion, prompting them to share their written, point-form answers from the Book Club prompts and asking clarifying questions. Their voices low and shy, some of them clearly did not want their buddies overhearing their responses while the rest of the class worked quietly on an independent assignment. And yes, that part took time to establish as well. But by week 2, after each student had been through one cycle of book club meetings, they realized the importance of keeping the room quiet so they could hear each other.
As we moved through weeks 2 and 3, I began to pull back from the conversation as students gained confidence in their discussion skills. On the 4th and final week, I didn’t sit in on the meeting, but I had them record the discussion using the ipad app, HT Recorder ($6.99). I had already recorded their conversations the week previously so they wouldn’t be distracted by it. HT Recorder picks up even the quietest voice, and skips sections where no one is talking, so you’re not wasting time while listening to the recording later. It’s easy to make clips and share full or partial recordings. Reading a student’s bare-bones written response while listening to their recorded conversation makes assessment much more satisfying as students prompt and question each other for richer, more detailed answers. The fact that I’m not sitting with them, obviously marking them, I think allows for a more fluid and natural, on-task conversation.
But while my kids sit in groups on a daily basis, it was clear during this book club, they need more work on asking clarifying questions and having the confidence to challenge each other’s answers. These skills are coming, and we’ll keep working on this in the next round.
While looking for a way of changing up the next book club, I recently read Mardie’s Muse Literature Circle prompts which I’m going to adapt for my students. Mardie generously describes the process, including examples and prompts her grade 7 students use.
Book Club Novels Used
Skate by Michael Harmon (great for reluctant readers)
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt
Lush by Natasha Friend
Four Steps to Death by John Wilson
Wounded by Eric Walters
Summer Ball by Mike Lupica
Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Last year the Idea Hive students spent a considerable amount of time studying Markus Zusak’s award winning novel, The Book Thief. As a follow-up activity to our read aloud, the students wrote their own novel, A Field Guide to Molching, based on the story’s fictional town. After Markus read the online version of their novel, he agreed to Skype simultaneously from Australia with my students in Wingham, Ontario and Clarence’s students in Snow Lake, Manitoba. Unfortunately, the Skype connection from Manitoba was a fail. While the experience was wonderful for those of us in Ontario, we felt saddened for the opportunity missed by the rest of the Idea Hive classroom.
The students from Ontario and Manitoba signed and sent copies of their book to Markus, who shared his plans to give a copy to his father as a Father’s Day gift. He also told our students they were to expect something in the mail from him.
Several weeks into our summer break, two autographed promotional posters of The Book Thief arrived from Australia – one for each of the Idea Hive classrooms. Markus, who had been saving these special double-sided posters, knew our students would appreciate what they meant to him.
After Clarence and I decided to laminate the posters, I took them to Carman’s Foto Source, located in the centre of my closest town, Goderich.
The next day, an F3 tornado moved through the main part of town, leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Our community was shocked as news of the devastation unfolded, and it wasn’t until the following day that I realized the posters were likely lost as well. While this was nothing compared to what others in the community had suffered, I couldn’t believe that once again, the events for our students had taken another disappointing turn.
Unexpectedly, I received a phone call 3 weeks later – “We have your posters”. The town engineers and police had allowed owners of the many damaged buildings 15 minutes to gather what items they safely could. Instead of taking expensive equipment, the employees of Carman’s saved their customer’s belongings – including the posters.
Since the store in Goderich was (and still is) closed, the posters were laminated and returned to the head office in another town. Imagining the chaos involved with a sudden merger of the damaged goods, it’s not surprising that the posters again went missing. I wondered if our students would ever see them. However, three weeks ago, once again, the posters turned up, and so the next day, after driving to Stratford and collecting them, I breathed a sigh of relief – and sent Clarence a tweet. “I have the posters!!”
After shipping Clarence’s poster off to Snow Lake (registered of course!), Clarence and I agreed to wait until he received it and we could present the posters together to our students. Today was the day.
We started the Skype call by sharing the journey that we all took last year with this year’s new gr. 7’s, and then shared a picture I’d taken of the posters before being dropped of in Goderich. In order for the students from Snow Lake to visualize the impact of the tornado, we played the first half of this video showing the town before and after. It was a sobering reminder for all of us so close to the community.
When we finally finished the story and produced the recovered posters, there were smiles of relief and clapping from everyone as the students realized the posters were safe.
While Clarence can tell the news to his former gr. 8 students, who are still attending school in the same building, I’ll be sending an email with a link to this post to my former gr. 8 students. I can already imagine the smiles on their faces.
The Idea Hive students are thrilled and appreciative of Markus’ gift. After travelling over 15,000 km and surviving an F3 tornado, we are thankful the posters’ long journey is finally complete.
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.
The students were shocked and disturbed. They were ready to learn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.