During Year 1, I was pretty hands off with the IYLH students at my school. My wonderful fifth grade colleague took the lead implementing the project with her kids while Mary and I juggled project management behind the scenes. With one project year under our belts, I was eager to spend more time in Year 2 working with the kiddos and experiencing the project from the student perspective.
This year, I am implementing the project with two third grade technology classes. Both groups come to me once a week for an hour: one on Wednesday, and one on Friday. I decided I’d have the classes alternate weeks: one class would focus on creating content, and the other on viewing, discussing, and commenting. And of course, I assumed it would all go perfectly! This is my project after all… right?
Well. As all of you know, the first task is making your students aware of the project, building excitement, and contextualizing the scope and awesomeness of what the kids are about to experience. I’ve been teaching for a long time, but I suddenly felt a little lost. Which pieces of the website, the book, and last year’s project would help 8 and 9 year olds understand this global collaboration best? What would give them that feeling of wonder and thrill about virtual visits to schools around the world? I wanted them to walk out of the room with a sense of awe and curiosity. And -- thank goodness! -- my Friday group truly got that magical feeling. But my Wednesday group left in some confusion.
Here’s what I did with each group. I share this with you, not just as teacher therapy, but also in hopes that my experiences will benefit you -- and that you might have comments and suggestions that will help us all!
Wednesday: A Bumpy Start
The kids sat on the rug when they entered technology class. With a hushed (and, I thought, wonder-filled) voice, I told them we were about to start an exciting project in which we would talk to kids around the world and write a book with them. They seemed happy, but puzzled. I then read a few pages of If You Lived Here aloud to the students and asked how this book helped them know more about people around the world, and I told them we would be writing a book about schools around the world. Again, more looks of, “huh?” And I knew I was off on the wrong foot. I had done too much telling, and not enough wondering together -- a teaching style I thought I had outgrown years ago! By the time I previewed last year’s book, videos, and Padlets, plus this year’s map, the kids were kind of overwhelmed. But I sent them off to explore those resources, hoping they’d feel the magic as they poked around the map, read last year’s lovely book, and saw last year’s videos. Our closing conversation was kind of unfocused, as kids talked about the audio quality and trivial details of past content, rather than the big picture of our coming adventures. It didn’t help that I was pulling pairs of kids and trying to film them on the side while the rest of the class stumbled about the website.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember. But we all know when lessons are a little flat, and this one definitely qualified. I was crestfallen -- I am so passionate about this project, and so enthusiastic about learning with all of this year’s schools. What had gone wrong?
I started like this:
“Friends, today I’d like to share with you a very special book. We’ll start by taking a picture walk through it together.”
I paged through If You Lived Here and asked students, “What do you see on the pages of this book?”
Student answers: Houses. Different houses. Some are big and some are small. Cool houses. They all look different, but they’re still houses. They are in different places. It’s houses around the world.
Me: “Why would the author write this book? What is the author’s purpose?” I asked the students to turn and talk to a partner to think together before responding. After a couple of minutes, they shared these answers:
To show different houses. To help people know about different houses. To help people see houses all around the world. To help people who want to buy a house to pick the kind of house they want. To help people understand how people are different around the world.
Ah ha! “Great thinking, third graders. The book shows houses around the world. And a book can be a great way to learn about other people and other places around the world. I’m going to read you a page from this book.”
I chose the page about cave dwellings to read aloud. Together, we were amazed! We had no idea people still lived in caves. We had thought only prehistoric humans did that. And one sentence really struck the kids: “Many children growing up in villages with cave dwellings believe everyone lives in caves -- and are surprised to discover that most people live in houses with a roof and four walls!”
They said, “Wait, we didn’t know anyone lived in caves. But are you telling us that some kids don’t know people live in houses??”
They were beginning to think about perspective, and about how what seems normal and everyday to them might not be that way to everyone.
I repeated: “A book can be a great way to learn about other people and other places around the world. Here is another question for you: how could we use technology to learn about other people and places around the world?”
As the students turned and talked in pairs, the room was starting to hum with excitement. This was technology class, and here was Ms. Skibba talking about other places around the world. What might she be planning?
Student answers: You can go on Google Earth. You can go on Brittanica and read an article. You can watch a video about that place. You can do research.
Me: “Could you talk to them?”
Students’ faces lit up in realization. They talked about email, blogs, Skype, and FaceTime. Together we discussed how technology can help us learn, not just about other people around the world, but also from and with other people around the world.
This was it! The moment I had been waiting for. The kids were curious, wanting to know more. They could see the path of this project beginning to open before them. I showed the project map on the projector and said that we would be learning with all of you, and with all of your schools. By the time they went to the computers to explore the If You Learned Here site, they were filled with wonder, energy, curiosity, and joy. They traveled around the project map, spontaneously brainstorming questions and ideas about each school. They read last year’s book and shared their discoveries with amazement. Most importantly, they are now ready to learn, share, and engage in this collaborative adventure with you and your students.
Here are my take-aways from this experience:
- Kids aren’t necessarily going to “get it” right away.. and that’s okay! Regardless of a student’s age, if he or she hasn’t traveled extensively, the wider world remains a bit of an abstraction. Engaging in some sort of project launch with your students is key, and those conversations will be revisited throughout the project (and hopefully beyond)!
- Showing and exploring is always better than telling. We already knew that, right? But I had to re-learn it the hard way. Start with the If You Lived Here book, last year’s If You Learned Here eBook, or this year’s map. Look, notice, infer, question, discover… and then you’re off!
- Connecting to known ways of learning (books, research tools) allows students to feel the promise and potential of new ways of learning. This paves the way for students to learn a key lesson from this project: that digital connections are a new and powerful source of information, and that technology can bring the world closer together.
What are your take-aways from my experience? What have your launch experiences been like? Feel free to post a comment below and share your thoughts!
by Carolyn Skibba