Thursday, May 26, 2011

Really Cool Special Effect for under $10

I was at a Canucks game not too long ago.  To get the fans whipped into an even higher state of frenzy, they dim the lights and play "Where the Streets Have No Name" (one of my favourite U2 songs especially with the dotted eighth digital delay riff).  But some of the new features this year are these enormous banner screens that drop down from the ceiling.  They show stills of the players and highlights of past games on them.  I think there are 4 screens and they play different scenes on them at the same time to increase the level of tension.  (I still haven't figured out where the projectors are.)  I really like the way they use these screens because of the way they seem kind of ghostly.  The image just seems to float in mid air and can be seen from both sides.

In my class, I have an LCD projector for my Smartboard.  I've projected the images on all sorts of things: the Smartboard, a screen, a wall, the ceiling, regular whiteboards (and then drawn on top of the whiteboard with the image still showing), etc.  Once I wanted to draw a picture of a playing card king on my window, but I didn't trust my freehand drawing, so I closed the outside shutters and projected a picture of the king from the internet onto the glass, then I traced it right on the glass using a whiteboard pen.  It came out perfectly. 

Now back to the Rogers Arena idea.  I wondered if I could reproduce the scrim-type screens in my classroom.  Remember the gauzy Lill sheers I have hanging from my ceiling?  I went back to Ikea and picked up two panels for $8.  I hung one from my ceiling and voila: cool shimmery screen that can be seen from both sides.  Of course, I hung them using my cheap hook-clips from Daiso (Man, I'm plugging products more than Oprah).  I can project the image really big if I get the projector back far enough (Can I get it even bigger using a mirror?  Hmmm). 

My kids and I watched a rocket launch on the big screen from both sides and I have my computer hooked up to a 100 watt amp.  It sounded like we were sitting on the tarmac.  There were some kids sitting on the risers facing the screen watching the launch from behind the screen.  I noticed that I could see the projected image on their faces and still see the launch.  It gave me another idea. 

I had one of my girls stand behind the screen while she told the story of the Three Little Pigs.  I have a scene of the story on a Smart Notebook page with the still images of the characters.  We could still see my student J behind the screen, and as she told the story, I flew in pictures of the characters and would move them on the scene.  J could see them and pretend to interact with them as I moved them up and down.  The kids went crazy!  It was like being in their own Disney cartoon.  Then I had another student just stand motionless, facing us behind the screen.  Using some of the paint tools, I drew horns and wings on her body.   Kids as canvas?   

There is a lot of potential behind this low-tech effect.  Just having a big screen, viewable from two sides is cool enough, but add the interactivity potential and it brings it to a whole new level.  There is also an interesting 3D effect because the image shows on the mesh and whatever is behind the mesh, so you see another set of the image a little further back.

I should probably patent this idea (famous last words of many destitute people).  For another $2, I'll tell you how to make the mesh screen retractable. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reading Project: Looking at Kids in a New Way


Do you know what this is?
Don't worry if you didn't because I didn't either. It doesn't look like much. If you were walking along and you kicked it on a sidewalk, you'd probably let it roll into the gutter and then you'd keep on walking. It would take a trained eye to know what this is and what it could be.  You've probably figured out that this is no ordinary pebble and that it is probably something special by the way I am talking about it. It is, in fact, a raw, uncut diamond weighing in at over 6 carats.

I am a participant in this really great reading project where we are trying to find new ways to meet the needs of kids.  Teachers from several district get together to try things and get feedback from the other teachers.  At one of our sessions, we were having an informal discussion about how most of our study subjects have all had this miraculous spurt in their reading, not just in the ways that we were focused on, but in a myriad of unexpected ways too. It is almost as if the act of being watched led to sudden learning. Someone attributed it to the fact that we were looking at kids in ways we never had before. I thought that was probably true and quite profound.

This idea of looking at kids in a new way has manifested itself in many ways. When the teacher group gets together, the phrase that keeps coming up is: "I never realized..."  Teachers have also reported the new bond they feel with their study subjects. For example, one teacher talked about the "knowing look" the child gives her during class because the student knows she is the study subject.

For me, it is definitely a new focus or a shift in focus. I knew my subject in the study had strengths and weaknesses in her reading skills, but would I have given her all of this attention and these additional opportunities (e.g. mentoring other kids, a little extra instruction, etc.) had she not been my study subject? I doubt it. The project gently forced me to focus in on this particular student, and so I see things in her that I never saw before. The study forced me to slow down and look at her in a new way and to try new things to get her real potential to shine through.

In the same way, it takes a focused, trained eye to recognize a diamond in the rough. And then you have to know what you are doing in order to cleave away the rough edges and to remove the rubble that prevents the diamond from shining through. Maybe you use a certain tool to shape the diamond and maybe you try a different technique to polish the stone. The point is: you have to know what you are looking for, and then you have to know what to do with the raw materials.

The thing is I already knew with certainty that my student was a diamond in the rough. How could I be so certain? That's easy because I know that all students are diamonds in the rough. Some come more shaped and more polished when I get them, but they all have the same basic raw materials. The trouble is I don't have the skills or the knowledge to uncover every single diamond.  But luckily, I am continuously learning new techniques and increasing my tool bag to help chip away at these precious gems. And projects like this one add to that tool bag.

If I am going to experiment with classroom design and trying to have learning look a new way, then my methods of assessment are going to have to look different too.  I can't rely just on tests or assignments if I want to capture the true child.  It's going to have to be a whole lot more.  Teachers are going to have to be a whole lot more too.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Exploration stations: What Works? What Didn't?

A while back, I posted about Exploration Stations (click here for that post or the update). 

These Exploration Stations are not a new concept, especially for primary grades.  The primary grades have had centres for decades, but I never had them when I was a child (because I am so old), and I didn't use them before because I was trained for intermediate teaching. 

I have tried centres before in my career, but they were an abysmal failure because I couldn't manage them properly:
  1. I couldn't keep up with replenishing the materials.
  2. Not everyone got to all the centres because they could only go when they completed all of their other work.
  3. The students got bored of the centres quickly, or kept going to the same ones every time.
  4. It was too chaotic in terms of mess and noise.
  5. I felt like I had to clone myself to get to all the centres so I could instruct everyone.
  6. The centres were not meaningful because they came off as busywork.
  7. Students weren't learning anything.
I didn't know why my centres didn't work because I didn't know why I was doing them. I think I did them because other primary teachers were doing them, but I wasn't confident enough to ask for help. I guess I didn't want to seem incompetent. Now I know it is okay to ask for help, especially when it is just a little advice.

Learning from Ghosts of Centres Past
My present Exploration Stations are much more successful.  I'll talk about the successes now, based on the failures of the past.

1. I couldn't keep up with replenishing the materials.
I only use materials directly on hand or materials I can get easily and cheaply.    Another problem was that I used to have an accompanying worksheet for each of my centres.  That was a big mistake.  They were too wordy and I would have to re-instruct everyone every time they went to a new centre.  (See #5)

2. Not everyone got to all the centres because they could only go when they completed all of their other work.
This was a conceptual error.  I viewed centres as an "extra" for students to do after the learning.  Now I view the stations AS the learning.  Now, I build it into my week and everyone goes to the stations.  The learning they do at the stations is authentic, valuable, varied, and takes a combination of a range of skills.

3. The students got bored of the centres quickly, or kept going to the same ones every time.
In the interest of choice, I always used to let students pick which centre they went to.  Now, I am of the philosophy that school should give students a range of experiences that they wouldn't normally have.  To achieve this, when I first introduce a set of stations,  I form the groups, and each group rotates through every station for at least 15 minutes at each station.  Why?  I want students to work with people who they normally wouldn't choose off the bat.  I want students to experience every station.  I want them to spend time exploring that new experience and 15 minutes is a good start; but it is also short enough so that if a particular station is not your cup of tea, then 15 minutes is short enough to be bearable.  I also let students know what after the initial rotation, they will have more choice about which Exploration Stations they do.

4. It was too chaotic in terms of mess and noise.
Now I do a way better job of setting my expectations.  During that initial rotation where everyone experiences every station, I train them about how to set up and put away every station.  (6Ts: Think, Try, Take care of materials, Talk in tiny voices, Take turns and share, and Tidy)

5. I felt like I had to clone myself to get to all the centres so I could instruct everyone.
Another huge conceptual error.  Before, I had very specific curricular outcomes I wanted to achieve at each station, hence the worksheets.  Now, I have global outcomes, but they are still very open in terms of expectations.  For example, some stations are meant for creativity, or socialization, or motor coordination, etc.  Also, the stations I choose are quick to set up and have little to no explanation to them.  They are
Exploration stations so that I am not telling students what to learn.  They are constructing their own learning.

6. The centres were not meaningful because they came off as busywork.
Before, they were busywork because they were an extra.  Now, I am very clear about my intentions at the Exploration Stations and why I do them (I want students to learn and practise a whole bunch of life skills in real life ways).  I tell students that I expect there to be problems because this is the real life part, and real life has real problems.  When problems do occur during the stations, I do not intervene unless it is a safety issue.  I give students a chance to work out their own problems because in real life, I won't be there to step in.  An effective way to deal with problems has been the check in times.  Every ten minutes or so, I call everyone together away from the stations to "check in".  We talk about what they are learning, what is working, and what isn't.  When they have a problem, they can share it (without mentioning any names), and the rest of the class can offer suggestions.  This process has worked very well.
7. Students weren't learning anything.
Before, the students really weren't learning anything or they were learning, but not the things that I intended, so I dismissed it.  Now the students are learning, and learning things that I never intended, but now that is wonderful!  How do I know they are learning?  Because now instead of instructing, micromanaging, and putting out fires, I have time to go around and observe while students explore.  Because now I have time to  have discussions, record, take pictures, and shoot video.  Because of what students say at check in time.  And because of the Thought Logs.  Every student has a log in which they record which station they explored, what they learned, and how they felt about the station.  It is a great record for the kids I might not get to that day.  I use the Thought Logs to frame my introduction to the next Exploration Station session: "I noticed in Jim's log that..." 
Successful Stations
Here are the stations that have worked well:
In brackets is my original, global intent for each station.
  • microscopes.  (observation) I only set up 2 so students have to share.
  • bulbs and batteries.  (logic, science) They love this station.  I got some supplies from the science room and bought some dollar store C cell batteries.  They make circuits and figure out why some work and some don't.
  • table hockey. (motor coordination, spatial ability) Wildly popular (I'm in Canada, remember?)  During the choice times when students can pick their own stations, I'll have 12 people there, taking turns, forming teams (sometimes four to a side), and having fun.  Sure there is some motor coordination involved but also there are a lot of interpersonal skills that go into playing this game.
  • 2 pieces of paper.  (creativity) I have a variety of pieces of paper in a basket.  A lot of them are discards from the paper cutter and photocopier.  Students can do anything they want, but they can only take two pieces of paper. I am amazed at what the students do with a little bit of freedom: stories, cards, origami, gluing, colouring, doll making, paper airplanes, etc.
  • duplo (creativity, spatial).  I put out a big tub of duplo.  During the initial rotation, there is enough for everyone, but when there is choice time, students have to really negotiate for their pieces.
  • Pez puppets. (make believe play)  I had a bunch of Pez dispensers. Students make up stories and plays and have the Pez dispensers act them out.  I saw a couple of shy kids really come out of their shells with this station.
  • yo-yos. (motor coordination, life skill)  I bought a few yo-yos at the dollar store because I wanted to show kids they could have fun without a huge amount of money or electronics.  This simple activity accomplishes that.  Because the same boys who would be on the DSs or video games at home seemed to gravitate toward the yo-yos.  Interestingly, for that same group of boys, yo-yos are more popular than the hockey game I think because it is less crowded and has more potential for showing off (by doing tricks) just like video games.
  • chopsticks. (fine motor coordination, life skill)  This is a lot like the yo-yos.  Kids challenge themselves or others by moving things or placing bottle caps in an arrangement.
Less than Successful Stations.
  • playdoh.  Who would have thought that playdoh would not be popular?  The kids found it too messy and were disappointed when they had to crush their creations in order to put them away.
  • the Smartboard.  I had more fights over the Smartboard than any other station: kids took over, kids took too many turns, kids stood in the way of the projector, kids pressed the wrong button which messed the activity up for everyone, etc.  The problem with using the Smartboard in these groups is that really only one person can use it at a time, so for the others it was too much waiting.
  • pattern blocks.  No one chose this during choice time despite being acceptable during the initial rotations.  One student offered the explanation: "It's too much like 'school'."
Your Mileage May Vary.
Like I said, I am an intermediate teacher teaching a primary classroom.  I had to get my head around the fact that play can be learning, but that it takes a teacher to frame it into learning.  And if you have any cheap and easy centre ideas of your own, please send them my way.