Knowledge is Power: Students Taking Charge of Their Own Learning

Research is creating new knowledge.-Neil Armstrong

We have been studying the rainforest.  Kids love animals and the plethora of exotic animals in the rainforest creates instant interest and curiosity.  One day the wonderment and inquiry had reached fever pitch.  “Does the poison arrow frog have any predators?” ” How big is a giant anteater anyway?” “Are howler monkeys nocturnal or diurnal?” And my personal favorite question that was asked, “How does chocolate come from the rainforest?” I started writing down all of our questions so that we could figure out how we would solve them.  Before I finished, someone said, “I think we should look on Safari on our iPads.” Someone else immediately asked if they could “research” rainforest to find some answers.  Do you see the rich vocabulary here?  These questions and statements are not being paraphrased.  This is what happens when children feel empowered to take charge of their own learning. I barely had nodded yes to the research question when my room looked like the start line at the Boston Marathon.  Someone found a website on Safari that had several rainforest animals.  Peer sharing began immediately.  The students started finding images and information about animals that interested them.  They helped each other and they were engaged, focused and excited.  Without me giving any directions…on their own they started saving images and importing them into Pages.  They debated font size, picture size and word choice.  I facilitated, checked-in with groups, answered a few questions and mostly just let them have at it.  Their conversation was rich with the language of inquiry. They worked on this for over an hour before we had to stop. After lunch they came back to it and worked until they finished.  Here is one student’s work that is finished. Keep in mind these children are 5 years old and have no keyboarding skills other than “hunt and peck”.

This lesson was completely student-driven.  It all started with me reading a non-fiction book on the rainforest.  My plan was to go in a different direction but once the questions started, I knew my plan was out the window and we were headed down a different path.  But…isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?  Inquiry-based learning teaches problem solving and critical thinking skills. It develops student ownership of their learning and builds student interest in the subject matter.  Inquiry allows students to create their own knowledge. The iPads give the accessibility needed for each student to do the research.  With only 4 computers in our class just 2 years ago, this would have never been possible.

I’ve been asked what happens when the children become bored with the iPads.  They say, “Oh, it’s a source of fascination now, but what happens when it no longer is?”  My answer to that is two fold.  First, if it is being used as a toy and not a learning tool, then it will gather dust on a shelf somewhere.  However, if it is integrated into the curriculum properly, it will be as valuable to students as our own laptops, smartphones, and computers are to us as adults.   When was the last time you used a phone book to look up a phone number or address?

My friends, knowledge is power.  Our students are overflowing with wonder and an urgency to learn.  We need to equip them with all the tools necessary to be successful.

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Who Are You? Are You a Reader?

I call everyone ‘Darling’ because I can’t remember their names. -Zsa Zsa Gabor

This post would be more suitable for the beginning of a school year.  However, it is never a bad idea to plan ahead!  My students always have difficulty learning the names of their classmates.  They will say “that boy over there” or “some girl”.  This year, I took a picture of each student with my iPad and imported them into a class book.  I used eBook Magic but you could also use iBooks Author.  It is a simple book.  Each page consists of only the child’s picture and a sentence that says, “I am ___”  The simplicity of this book was so helpful at the beginning of the year.  Students learned names much more quickly, but more importantly, they were “reading”.  For many, this was their first book to read on their own.  I underestimated how much they would love this book.  It excited them to see their own picture in a real book as they called it.  Even more surprising, they continue to read that simple book even today, with only 25 school days remaining.

Thinking about next year, I will definitely make the book again with my new students.  However, I want to add some other books as well-  books about the children themselves.  We do a lot with thinking maps.  At the beginning of each year I feature one child each day and make a circle map.  On that map, we write various items that describe the child’s likes, favorite things, and descriptors of that child. We display the circle maps in the hall.  I will take that circle map and make a short book in eBook Magic about the child and upload it to each child’s iBooks.  By the end of the first nine weeks, each child will have a book about themselves as well as books about their classmates.

Providing students with opportunities to experience both narrative and informational text will improve both their motivation and achievement. 46% of students in the United States start kindergarten unprepared for school. The achievement gap tends to widen through the years and often students who enter school behind their peers, stay behind.  By providing high interest books in the reading center and on their iPads, we develop print motivation which is a child’s interest in books. Children with print motivation will work harder to learn to read. They will identify themselves as a reader.

By taking incremental steps in our classrooms, providing high interest reading materials, and engaging students at an early age, we can work toward decreasing that achievement gap one classroom at a time.  The iPads give me the opportunity to create my own reading material through eBook Magic, iBooks Author and even Pages.  After all, who wouldn’t want to jump into a book written just for them?

Wouldn’t it be great for a child to say, “Who am I?  I am a reader!”

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And a child shall lead them…

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”  ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How many of you have a VCR that is still flashing 12:00?  If so, you need an 8 year old to program it. Or better yet, throw it out. I no longer have a VCR and was thrilled to move into the world of DVR.   Many of my students would be quick to ask what a VCR is. Oh the times, they are a changin’.  Take a look at this image depicting what happens on the internet in one minute.

As our students use iPads in the classroom daily, they are learning ways to manipulate this instructional tool.  They quickly share the knowledge with others and they seldom have to help the same person twice.  Kids get it. Adults, not as quickly. A colleague of mine came into my classroom to ask me a question about a particular app.  Immediately after she asked me, a nearby student jumped up and said, “I can show you.  Look…” The 5 year old quickly went through the steps and the teacher, trying to follow along, said, “Like this?”  and the child, slightly impatient, said, “No, like THIS.” Our students are digital natives.  They were born digital.  They are growing up in a life immersed in digital technologies.

The challenge is teaching them.  Because our students think and process information differently in this digital age, our teaching must change. The digital immigrants teaching these digital natives must think differently.  How many of us still print out email or print out a document to “proof read”?  With the iPads, we’ve been able to go almost paperless.  I say almost because we haven’t worked out some barriers yet.

I recently received a new student.  He had never used an iPad.  I didn’t bother showing him how to use it.  His peers took over and he was proficient by the end of the school day.  I used to demonstrate how to use new apps on the Smart Board.  Going step-by-oh-so-painful-step for my digital natives.  I thought they needed that.  They were politely restrained and gave me that condescending smile of “Yeah, yeah…blah blah blah.  Get on with it so we can do this ourselves.” I no longer torture them.  The speed in which they process new information is astounding and I had to adapt.  I love technology and think of myself as an early adopter…but even I catch myself about to print out an agenda for a meeting from time to time.  Oh Mrs. Meeuwse, that was sooo 47 seconds ago.  Old habits die hard.

With the apps we use in class, the seamless integration of technology with learning, and adaptive and flexible teaching techniques, we can bridge that digital divide.  My students would cheer, but they are blogging about the rainforest and can’t be disturbed. Cue the Rent a Crowd App in the app store.  It will clap and cheer for them for only .99.

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Spelling on the iPad

“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.” A. A. Milne

How many times in a day do I hear “How do you spell…”  They know better than to ask.  They know I do not spell for them.  I guess hope springs eternal and they think if they ask often enough, I will cave.  We use inventive spelling strategies in the classroom along with environmental print and word walls.  There is no shortage of words in our room.

On the iPads, we like to use a few apps to work on spelling.  The favorite of my students is Montessori Crosswords.  This app is a little pricey at $2.99 but it is very good. Students build words in crossword puzzle form using sounds and picture clues.  We also use Word Wizard. There are 189 word lists to choose from and 1000 frequently used words.  Students use a talking, moving alphabet that enables them to create words and read.  This app is also $2.99.  For individualization, I use the Spelling 1-2 app.  This app is very pricey at $9.99.  It has skyrocketed in price.  I bought it for much less last year.  The best feature of this app is the ability to create individualized spelling lists for students.  The newest app we have is FREE.  It is called NG Word Builder.  It is created by National Geographic.  Word Builder is an interactive resource that lets students build words and sentences using letters, blends and digraphs, vowel patterns, endings and affixes, word families, and high frequency words. It is perfect for reinforcing phonics and spelling.  Did I mention it is free??

In addition to using these apps, we do word work daily in the classroom.  We use the iPads to write the room, make lists, work on word families and even take spelling tests.

I recently read “I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More” by Karen Beaumont. If you haven’t read it, it’s hysterical.  The illustrations alone make me laugh.  In the story, the young man gets in trouble for painting all over the house and making a terrible mess.  After the story, we talked about things the students have done that have gotten them in trouble.  We went to the iPads and illustrated.  Some wrote directly on the illustration, others imported it into the Pages app and typed their story.  Boy, talk about true confession time! Here is my favorite.  It is a good way to end a Friday blog post.

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A Bet’s a Bet!

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in new eyes.” -Marcel Proust

A recent conversation between 2 of my students went something like this:

“I saw a python in my yard over spring break.”

“No way! Pythons don’t live here.”

“Yeah huh I really did. I bet you $10.  Have you ever seen one?”

“No. Only on tv.”

“Dude, come look on my iPad. I will show you one.”

At that point, they went over to their iPads. They promptly opened up Safari, Google-searched pythons and went straight to Wikipedia.  They started reading what pythons eat and looked at pictures of pythons.  Then, a terrible, awful, discovery…pythons do not live in Charleston.  Oops.  *Silence*   Well, this is awkward.

Haven’t we all insisted something was right and we were oh-so-wrong?  We all have misconceptions and young children are no different.  Sometimes it’s difficult to let go of those misconceptions.  In this case, the students solved their own problem.  They were forced to look at something in a different way.  Problem solving and discovery often mean a change in thinking, a change in how we look at something, a paradigm shift.

Many school districts are looking at a change in how they do education.  Decisions are being made about whether to try iPads or some other tablet.  Discussions are being had about what is the best way to proceed.  Arguments are taking place about whether teachers and students need this technology. The misconception exists that young students can’t handle iPads.  I have taught for 22 years without iPads and just over 1 year with them.  In the past, I’ve had as many as 4 desktop computers in my classroom and as few as 1. (I currently have none.)  The problem with the desktop computers was lack of access.  There was no way all 30 students could get on the computers in a meaningful way on a daily basis.  How many times a day do you use your smart phone to look up something, get directions, make a reservation, look up a phone number, text someone, send an email or take a picture?  Accessibility to information is a critical part of learning. The students in the verbal exchange written above would have either argued their way through the python dilemma or they would’ve come to me to solve it.  I am not a paid Apple representative, nor do I play one on TV…but what I know for sure is the accessibility and convenience of the iPad allow students and teachers to approach learning in a whole new way…with a new set of eyes.

“Dude…you owe me $10.”

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iBooks Author

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”-Jackie Kennedy

How can I help my students be better readers?  What do good readers do? These are questions all teachers face daily.  For the past 3 years, we have been using the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy approach to teach reading and writing.  This has been very successful for us.  One of our biggest obstacles in implementing this program is obtaining resources for teaching guided reading.  Our leveled book collection initially was non-existent.  Over the last 2 years, our school has prioritized literacy and added books to create a leveled book room.  While we are in a much better position with resources now, adding books is expensive…and no one has any money.

Enter iBooks Author.   This free program for the Mac allows you to create your own multi-touch book.  It allows for creation of galleries, video, 3D objects, and interactive diagrams.  There are templates ready to use or you can create your own. I’ve been creating books for my students in this app and uploading them to their iBooks app on the iPads.  My first book was a non-fiction book about our city, Charleston, SC.  It was written with easier vocabulary, repetitive text patterns, and utilizing mostly sight words.  I created a second version using the same pictures with slightly more difficult vocabulary and increased sentence structure.  The third version has the same pictures, but was written for my above-grade level readers.  Knowing my students’ interests has also helped me decide on book topics.  I wrote a non-fiction book on Dirt Bikes and another on Soccer.  Looking at my state science standards, I wrote a non-fiction book on Baby Animals.  Some of my boys who are more reluctant readers, love the Dirt Bikes book and read it daily.

The Common Core State Standards indicate students need to be reading more informational texts. By 4th grade, students should be reading 50% literary texts and 50% informational texts.  Today’s workplace requires many different kinds of literacy.  Good readers read many different kinds of books. They think about what they read and they make connections as they read.  Good readers ask questions and make predictions.  With the iBooks Author app, I am able to create student centered texts that are literally at their fingertips.

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On Safari

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand-Confucius

We did it.  We stepped out into the World. Wide. Web.  We have been talking about oviparous animals.  After a class read aloud of the book Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, the children chose 4 animals that lay eggs. They Google searched the animals and found pictures of them.  Then they saved their images to the camera roll and imported them into their Pages App.  Once the images were imported in, the children wrote about them.  Finally, we shared our projects with each other.  This was our first time to go on Safari.  First, there is the issue of internet safety as children search the web. Second, there is the whole madness of 26 children learning how to search Google and choose an appropriate site and lastly, saving images to their camera photo roll.  This first time, we used Wikipedia for our animal images.

For instruction, I hooked my iPad to my Smart Board and was able to demonstrate step by step how to do things.  The children listened and followed directions beautifully.  As soon as they opened up their Wikipedia pages with images of the animals, the room was filled with Oooh’s and Ahhh’s.  A hush fell over the room and their eyes were huge with wonder. That beautiful Kodak moment was quickly replaced with tons of excited chatter and discussion.  By the second time I had demonstrated how to find the image and save it, the pros were done with me and moving at their own speed.  “Thanks, Mrs. Meeuwse, but we’ve GOT it.”  Teacher dismissed.

My original plan was to stretch this out over 2 days.  I thought on day 1 we would work on learning how to search the web and save our images. On day 2, we would import them in and type our facts.  The children had a different plan.  They were so engaged in this activity that when I suggested we wait and finish tomorrow, their faces fell and they said, “Why?” Why indeed, so we worked on.  They worked for an hour and a half before most all were finished and we shared.  After we shared, they asked, “Can we please do this again tomorrow?” “Tomorrow?” I asked.  “You want to learn tomorrow too?”

These crazy kids….

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We’re Engaged!

Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important. -Bill Gates

Engagement…a critical factor in learning and achievement. When kids are engaged, they are creating, thinking, analyzing, problem solving and collaborating. Recent visitors to our classroom from another part of our state came to see the iPads in action. They saw us during our morning literacy center time with students moving in and out of small groups. Students were involved in both partner and independent activities all around the classroom. Some activities involved iPads and some did not. The visitors comments were, “These children are SO engaged! They are managing their own learning and they know what they are doing. It all seems so seamless.”

Those comments are great! We work very hard to accomplish this; however, it doesn’t happen on its own. Engagement in any learning task depends on the carefully orchestrated classroom environment. You simply can’t place an iPad in a student’s hands and hope it all works out. What visitors see is a result of daily instruction, modeling, guided practice and gradual release of responsibility. My students know how to do many things, but more importantly, they know why they are doing them. Flexible grouping within the classroom and collaborative coaching are also necessary. My job is more important than ever! I can’t just “Skype in”.

High expectations and classroom rigor, along with incorporating appropriate iPad apps, are yielding dramatic increases in achievement in our at-risk students. Narrow curricula and rigid instructional practices hinder these particular students from excelling.

My kindergarten students will graduate from high school in 2024. Lack of student engagement is a major factor in student drop out. The use of iPads as a technology tool, personalizes student learning and addresses learning styles. They are visual, auditory, and tactile. With 52% of children under the age of 8 using iPods, iPads, smart phones and other digital media, it’s obvious what holds their attention.

We are working diligently to provide our students with a variety of experiences that are engaging and meaningful across all subject areas. The great thing about watching my students in action is that to them, it’s no big deal. When I tell them we have visitors coming to see all the great things they are doing, they just shrug it off as if to say, “Why all the fuss? Isn’t everyone using iPads?”

It’s a question worth considering.

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Redefining Literacy with iPads

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.  ~Alvin Toffler

We are all such creatures of habit and we seldom like change…I tend to go to the same stores, eat the same food and sit in the same spot in school meetings and in church.  My students tend to sit in the same (unassigned) spot on the carpet and get upset when someone else is “in their spot”.  The girls tend to be far more vocal about it, but the boys are all “Dude…” and it usually is resolved without much argument. 

Change isn’t always bad.  In the last 23 years, I’ve gone from teaching with chalk and chalkboard, to whiteboard and dry erase markers, to a Smart Board,  and now I use both Smart Board and iPads. I’ve adjusted the way I teach by learning one way, unlearning and learning anew.  I can’t seem to function without my iPhone and iPads, both personal and professional.  (Yes, I have 2 of them.)  When I think about my kindergarten students, I marvel at all that they are able to do and to experience in this digital age.  Their language is peppered with “Tell your mom to text my mom so we can have a play date.”  “We downloaded a movie from Netflix and watched it on the laptop.” “I played Angry Birds on my mom’s phone when we went out to eat.” “Why do you need a map when you can look at the GPS?”

When asked to define literacy, our first thoughts tend to go toward the obvious- reading and writing.  It seems more accurate to define literacy today. Librarian Valerie Strauss defines literacy today as Transliteracy.  She says, ” Literacy has evolved, to not be defined or confined by container or format. It’s not just reading words on a page. It might be decoding graphic novels, it might be decoding video. It will be literacy in forms we haven’t even dreamed yet. We should encourage kids now to get their literary riches in formats that appeal to them and that they are comfortable with, whatever it may be. That is the future. The literacy of the future is finding meaning in many forms.”

Ipads serve a very real purpose in today’s “transliterate” classrooms.  I find they are easy to incorporate in all areas of content; and my students, as young as they are, lead the way.  I’m glad I’m along for the ride.

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Write On!

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.  ~William Wordsworth

One way we’ve been making connections with our reading is to use our Pages App as a Reading Response journal.  Students write about what they are reading.  It’s a way to share thoughts, feelings, and questions.  The story we read was Denise Fleming’s In the Tall, Tall, Grass. Students wrote their thoughts about the story.  Some shared connections they made with the story.  Reading Response journals enable the children to think more about the story.  My students often have difficulty thinking beyond the text.  If asked “Why do you think” kinds of questions, they are reluctant to answer because they are afraid they will get it wrong.  At 5 years old, they are already conditioned to give the “right” answer.  I want them to think beyond what is written in the story and explore the possible feelings and/or thoughts of the characters.  This opens discussions up for making inferences and predictions.  I model this by stopping during shared reading and thinking aloud, discussing things I wonder and make predictions about what is about to happen next in the story.

Another good way to use the Pages App is to have the students do writing extensions beyond the text after reading. For this activity, we took our iPads outside and took photographs of the tall grass near our room.

The students wrote what they might see (or have seen) in the tall, tall grass.  They imported their photo into Pages and shared with the group their innovations on the story.

Using Pages is a great app for journal writing. Whether Reading Response or Science, it’s a great way for students to quickly get their thoughts down.  Having the camera option is a terrific means of incorporating their observations.  These activities had my students completely engaged and asking when they could write some more.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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