Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Embedded in the classroom

Much of the time, due to scheduling constraints and packed agendas, my interaction with teachers and their students is limited to the "talking head" model or the "just tell them about the databases" session. When I have the opportunity to work with a teacher for an extended time period on a multi-level project, I see the real potential of being embedded in the classroom.

This was my third year collaborating with sixth grade science teacher, Travis Kerkove, spending sixteen class periods working one on one with his students on their Astronomy inquiry project, from start to finish.


Pose Real Questions

Prior to my first visit in late September, Mr Kerkove spent some time exploring basic information about the solar system, so the students had a minimal background knowledge from which to start posing real questions about the subjects that caught their attention.

During that prep time, I built a web site designed to focus student attention during the next few weeks.

Mr Kerkove communicated with parents about the upcoming project, let them know about the site and told that I would be working with the class on a long term basis.

When we met for the first time, I shared some of my own "why" questions on Padlet:

This was on the front page of the web site for the first week while students were exploring their topics.

I created Padlets for their own brain storming, but we only used it for one period:

It didn't draw out the thoughtful questions we were hoping for, perhaps because their understanding of the subject matter wasn't deep enough. Or maybe because it was a little too much fun to be silly.

Pose Real Questions

The students had several days to explore potential "why" questions using the recommended sources on the "Trustworthy Resources" web page, the majority of which were subscription databases. 

Students are used to going directly to Google because it always appears to have the answer, with dozens, if not millions of results for any search. Focusing our attention on the content of our online databases helped remind the students that magazines and online reference books are also excellent sources of information. We all started with Britannica Online, which has several choices of reading levels and depth of information.  By coincidence, we were able to access a trial account to Rosen's Power Knowledge/Earth Science during this time frame and it turned out to be one of the best all round sources for many of the topics students were learning about.

Unfortunately, one of the best government sites, NASA, was down a majority of our research time due to the government shutdown. (It did open up during our presentation stage so that students could take advantage of the treasury of astronomical images.)

Students were encouraged to look at the variety and depth of information available on their topic before making their final choice, but upon reflection, perhaps they did not have enough time to do this or misjudged the quantity, as a few struggled to mine the sources as they began taking notes.

All the students created accounts using our school subscription to EasyBib, which is synced up with their Google Apps for Education logins.

I walked them through the registration process and setting up their projects. I then demonstrated how to use EasyBib to create and update their bibliographies. For review, they could also check out the tutorials I posted on YouTube and embedded on the "Taking Notes" web page.

Next, we went over the basics of taking notes and organizing them in preparation for writing their presentation script.

Interpret Information

While some students did utilize our print collection, most notes were taken using digital sources. And while it might seem odd to hear this, we encouraged the copy/paste function, as it helped us greatly in monitoring student success at paraphrasing. The EasyBib virtual note card provided options for both.

All the students shared their projects with both Mr Kerkove and I so that we could provide feedback. This was especially helpful to me, as it was difficult to have one on one sessions with every student during every period that I spent in the classroom.

I reviewed all the bibliographies and all the notes and shared my suggestions using the EasyBib comment feature.

Where they were having trouble finding relevant resources, I provided recommendations.  Mr Kerkove and I worked in tandem, meeting with students individually and helping them think through the process. 

When the students felt like they had enough information to start writing, they created Google document and shared it with both Mr Kerkove and I. (Next year I will use the Doctopus script, which eliminates problems with sharing permissions).

Every class was busy, with tasks to accomplish every 40 minute period, so Mr Kerkove and I rarely had time to discuss individual student progress. We relied on our shared spreadsheet and communication via email.

We tracked every step, so he could see that I had given student feedback on EasyBib, on their script and finally, on their Google slides and I could see that he had one on one discussions with students.

By this point, students were at many different points in the continuum. Some were still gathering relevant information, while others were ready to start on their presentations. Again, all the instructions were provided on the web site so that they could easily go at their own pace.

Report Findings

Before moving on, we paused in the research process and I showed them how to find and insert images in to their slides, emphasizing the importance of giving proper credit. Because the built-in Google image search in slides was so easy, most students relied on that, but there was also good use of NASA images. Students seemed to grasp the concept of giving proper credit, but had a harder time understanding the need for a good hyperlink (rather than simply indicating "Google image") and that is something I will follow up on next year.

Every student started with blank slides and were encouraged to use simple but impactful images rather than themes and bullets ("zen presentation"). Their script text was copied and pasted into the notes section of each slide. "Own the information" was a much repeated phrase as they prepared to share with the class. They weren't required to memorize the script, but they did need to feel totally comfortable with it.

The last slide in the deck was the bibliography they created using EasyBib.

To give them an idea of the presentation feel and pacing, I gave my own version to each class. 

After they were done with slide creation, they had time to practice their delivery skills with partners and then each individual presented to their class. My biggest disappointment is that I was unable to hear most of them due to commitments in other buildings.

All of the finished presentations are posted on the web site and it is rewarding to see the variety, creativity and evidence of learning.

After the collaboration concluded, we asked the students several evaluative questions.

Student comments were solicited as well. This word cloud indicates the frequency of the words with word size.

Here are a few quotes:

"I thought that it was a great process overall and one tweak I would make was that to not do things so solo and help people on staying on track"

"I think that the student should have the choice to choose their project, but if they don't they can be assigned one. You should also have the choice of paper notes or computer notes."

"I thought the project on googledocs AND easy bib was AMAZING."

"I thought about the project was easy because of easybib. Easybib made it easy because you could take notes and cite sources and store as many as you want."

"Give the classes more time to look for facts and make notes"

"I think you should do give them much much more time next year for research"

"We need a lot more time to decide what are topic is and less time getting notes because I had all the time in the world to get notes and my project was good.I loved doing this project. I thought that using computers made things a lot easier and more fun." 

"I think that having a choice was good for some students because that gave them a choice to do what they wanted. For some other students, having a choice was a little overwhelming. I think that we should have been given a list of different topics to choose from. Then it wouldn't be so overwhelming. But other than that, it was a fun project."

"I liked most of it. It was kind of hard at first but then I began to understand. I felt like I had PLENTY of help and made me feel a lot better about my project's potential. THANK YOU!!!"

"Using computers were fun,but I had a little trouble making sure all my notes were there and sourced. It was also helpful though with not having to write down all of my sources. One thing about using computers was you could access it any where. Choosing my own topic was fun, but I feel it would be easier to have you assign us topics. It would take some weight off my shoulders I don't know about the other kids, but I had a very hard time because my first question didn't have an answer. Thanks for the help!"


Students want and need a lot of time to explore and wonder a little bit. We didn't have as much variety in the questions as there could have been, probably because they felt under pressure to confirm it and get started on the research.

I'd like to incorporate more multi-media, especially video, especially during the exploration process and as part of the presentations. We have tended to steer away from video because students can be easily distracted by it, but I think we if we package it as we did the selection of resources, that can be minimized. There is also a lot of potential for students utilizing video snippets to help them explain concepts during their presentations. That will take another layer of instruction during the last phase of the project.

Some topics in Astronomy, such as those that involve abstract theories of physics are very intriguing to sixth graders, but are difficult to conceptualize, or "own". Students who selected questions that had to do with black holes, the big bang theory or gravity struggled to understand them well enough to explain them to their classmates and were frustrated by the resources available, which tended to require a higher level of scientific knowledge than they have yet acquired.

Although I tried very hard to provide an equal amount of feedback to all ninety plus students, I did end up helping some more than others. And when I left only one comment on someone's EasyBib notes, they noticed it! 

Working from the spreadsheet was a lifesaver, but I still felt like I should have made a bigger effort to check in with Mr Kerkove more often. His insights were invaluable and he could give ME feedback on how to tweak, revise and rethink my demonstrations, explanations and resources.

I would like the students to add their audio narration to the posted slides. This would add an element of fluency and students from the other classes could watch videos to learn and compare information.

More assessments - Last year, I gave students short assessments every week to judge their understanding. This year, our time seemed to pressed and those got skipped over. I should have made the time.

This collaboration is one of the highlights of my school year. Every year we learn something about how to improve it and I learn SO MUCH astronomy!