Learning from a question week: Wrap-up

This week has come to an end, and I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the “Learning from a question week” that I had in class. With approximately 60% of the students gone on a school trip, I wanted to engage the students in an activity that challenged them to learn something new, yet also allow them to follow their interests. I specifically wanted to encourage the students to follow a question in search for an answer.

All in all, I was happily surprised with the level of confidence the students displayed to carry out their research. They were excited to learn more about a topic that interested them and they initiated their research very quickly. Perhaps they were equally eager to open their own blog sites as part of their other coursework. There was a sense of excitement when the students were able to take some time to read and comment on each other’s questions for yesterday’s final class together.

I feel that the week was a success! It included a number of opportunities to talk about digital citizenship and digital footprints. I hadn’t necessarily planned to include those, but when the right opportunity presented itself, it was a good learning moment and it helped make what we were doing more sense, too. I was once again reminded on the value of offering choice to students. They had choice in the question, choice in the research, choice in developing their blog sites. I know that this led to greater motivation for learning. In fact, there were numerous signs of engagement all week, too. Finally, I felt that the “Learning from a question week” was a success in that it helped the students develop some their 21st century fluencies, which are so critical for classroom and future success, including the opportunity to develop their information fluency, media fluency, as well as practice some good global digital citizenship.

Here is a sample of the variety of questions that drove individual student learning this week:

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Learning from a question week: Day 5 – Learning, reading & commenting

The students were excited to return to the lab today, and they were eager to read what everyone learned this week. Before doing that, we first walked through how to comment effectively on a blog and talked a bit more about extending a conversation through the commenting process. This included a few comments and discussion on leaving a positive digital footprint, especially on a school blog site.

Once in the lab, it was so quiet as students went from site to site commenting and sharing their thinking. I was happy to hear some conversations take place, too, on the topics they were reading. The time went by so quickly for the students – another sign of engagement in the learning.

Learning from a question week: Day 4 – In the lab (again)

The focus for today’s class-time was to continue our research and attempt to answer our questions in the lab. I reminded the students that our goal is to share our findings publicly through our newly-opened blog sites. Then, following a good question on using an image in a post, I led a brief discussion on the importance of citing other people’s work. I knew that they were used to this step in their language arts class research, but the reminder served as a good prompt that much of what we learn in one class applies to other classes, too. This included also included a quick lesson on linking websites within a blog post. We then went to work.

As we focused our efforts in the computer lab, I heard a number of comments that were signs of student engagement in the entire process:

This is awesome!

I like how this looks online.

How can I change the size of this image?

How do I change …., because it doesn’t look good enough for others to see?

I was even more interested in those comments that hinted at the thinking behind the student questions:

I never knew that the deep ocean was so interesting.

I was glad to learn more about NASA’s plans for sending astronauts in space.

Until now, I only thought that dogs could see in black and white. It was interesting to learn that they can actually see in some, but not all, colors.

Learning from a question week: Day 3 – In the lab

Today is our third day in answering our questions and we returned to the computer lab to carry on with our research. I noticed that the students were generally choosing the first Google result of their query and accepting that as ‘the’ answer. This promoted a discussion on the value of multiple resources and viewpoints, especially in response to an ‘open’ question. This also necessitated a quick review on gathering and writing notes, as well as citing sources.

The students were focused on their work and wanted to share what they were learning with me. It was great to learn more from each question, and they started to see the value of sharing this with the larger world once we post our learning on our blogs.

Learning from a question week: Day 2 – Starting our research & Opening a blog

I shared yesterday about how I wanted to engage a group of students in a passion-based learning activity that would allow them the freedom and time to research a question that interested them personally. Today we started our research and talked a bit, too, about ways to present our findings through a blog.

I had served as my students’ technology teacher last year, so I am aware of their developing abilities online as digital citizens. Thus, one of my teaching goals for this year was to get my students actively blogging in my classes so that they can share their thinking and assignments. I had already started this process with the high school students, but was waiting for the right opportunity to begin with the middle school students. Well, today was the day to begin!

We reviewed the central ideas behind blogging and I then guided the students to open their own student blogs through my school site on Edublogs. I provided some guidance on how to open their site and respond to a first post. (This was actually a great exercise in following directions.) They could also change the appearance of their blog through one of the many themes that were available.

The students took to this activity with great enthusiasm and I was happy to see how eager they were to share their initial posts. My goal for today was to get the students started right away in their blogging and begin researching their question. So, I decided to take a few minutes tomorrow to develop our ideas on commenting a bit more. I would also continue on-going discussions on issues related to digital citizenship. They were clearly engaged in what they were doing.

One opportunity did present itself during the afternoon session together when students started using images they found online as part of their blog’s theme. It was in this moment that we discussed copyright and the use of other people’s work. Was it right to steal an image and claim it as our own or use it without permission? What does it mean to present your work online? I reminded the students of how we worked last year to cite our image sources in PowerPoint presentations, too. This was a great opportunity to teach “in the moment” when there was a real need to understand and apply.

Learning from a question week: Day 1 – Developing a question

With approximately 60% of the middle school students absent this week on a school trip to DC, I knew that I would have a group of students for an extra hour of class-time every day during the week while their teachers are away. I also knew that this would be a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders from different classes and with mixed abilities. I was reminded of this series of blog posts on an attempt/experiment with passion-based learning in an elementary classroom as well as some reading I completed during the summer on Genius Hour. So with this in mind, I wanted to engage the students in an activity where they had the freedom to explore their passions and interests. More specifically, I wanted to encourage the students to follow a question in search for an answer.

We started today by briefly differentiating two different types of questions: “What do we mean by an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ question?” After a few examples as a group, the students drafted some additional examples of each type of question.

We then moved on to brainstorm individual passions and ideas. I asked each student to consider the following prompts:

What are 10 things you love to do and learn?

What are 10 things you  are good at?

What are 10 things you wonder about?

I had the students share their lists with others in the class. They enjoyed this step. I believe that students love to share their ideas together, especially when it is on topics that are dear to them. In addition, this provided an extra opportunity to build some community among this new “class” of students who would be together all week.

For the next step, I asked the students to consider 2-3 items in order to draft 2-3 ‘open’ questions that they would like to answer if given the opportunity for research, practice and reflection. I then asked the students to share their questions with other classmates so that they could be “fine-tuned” by each other: Did the question make sense? Was it an ‘open’ question? How could the question be worded better to help focus any research to answer it?

To end our session together I highlighted how we will attempt to research and answer our questions, and what we will do to share what we learn. I was surprised at how the class time flew by, and the students were, too. They were definitely engaged in the sharing of their interests and drafting process of their questions. A wide range of passions became evident, and I learned more about each student, too. They left feeling good about being “stuck at school” while their classmates are away. Even this little feeling of student empowerment was a reward for me.

Science news in the classroom

We held our second “science news” day today and through this activity, I was able to learn a lot more about my students’ interests in science. I am learning that I have a few students who are keenly interested in space exploration. One student shared news about research into deep sea life, and another shared recent discoveries in marine archaeology. Among other science news, we received an update on the impact of climate change and the life expectancy of starfish, research into lime disease in squirrels, as well as a report on the developing field of scientific-based art.

I find that I am able to remember these individual interests and then reference them in conversations later in science class. This has been helpful as I strive to develop a learning community for this year.

One of my goals for “science news” is to offer opportunities to students to explore the fields of science and pursue their own interests in a field that interests them. This process is also meant to introduce my students to quality online science resources as well as provide an opportunity for students to develop their information fluency.

Overall, I find that the students have been quite interested in reporting their science news. Some of the discussions that come out of a student-reported news story has led to new questions and further research. Clearly, this is a process that the students find engaging, too.