Friday, November 14, 2008

Hands on Science Meets a Great Final Presentation

Not only do second graders learn sorting and classifying, they can now document their learning with an Animoto video!

Create your own video slideshow at

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I Never Doubted Them (Much)

So the EraserTowners are wiggly, chatty, silly, and goofy. They are seven- and eight-year-olds after all. So why would a teacher (me) sign them up to stand in front of a camera to be seen by five other classrooms across Pennsylvania?

Well, there were a few reasons. First, it was to participate in a videoconference with MAGPI entitled Famous Americans - a guessing game activity where each school gave clues about three different people and the other schools had to guess who they were. (see here for photos, etc.). My class has been researching "famous Americans" and learning about being good citizens four a few years now. We do it in the fall, and it is a difficult project for the beginning of second grade. But, I have learned that the benefits are well worth the effort it takes. And, the children truly immerse themselves in their work and take ownership of their learning. It is a guided research project, so I am helping them every step of the way. This is hard work for me, of course, but I am building skills that the children will need through the year and in years to come. So, to give the children a chance to share information they are gathering anyway with other children their age in a fun guessing game activity was the first reason to sign up for the videoconference.

The second reason was because these children love to work collaboratively. They love to move around, plan, and create things. For this videoconference, the children would not only be listening to other people presenting, they, too, would be the presenters. That is quite a job for young children! But since the other classes joining us would be second and third grade classes, I rationalized that we would all be working at the same level so "what could go wrong" in my class?

I also believe strongly in giving young children the chance to see how technology can be used and to be a part of the tech-side of the projects. I model how to set things up, explain the problems, and ask for their help when appropriate. I explain to them the possible snags in our plan and ask them to help me prepare for Plan B and even Plan C if necessary.

After all the preparation and the discussion of proper behavior when participating in this type of event, we did have a moment of "bunny ears" during the set-up. I did get very nervous that we would (they would) fall apart in front of all the other schools. But, as I had originally expected, they worked so well together and pulled it off fantastically. Even though, because of technical difficulties, we could not see the other schools as they presented, my students worked hard, took notes together, pretty much sat still for over an hour, and presented like professionals. We also learned some great videoconferencing tips that we can share with our school.

Oh, and there was some curriculum-type learning that went on as well! Oops, almost forgot about that!

Monday, August 11, 2008

That's Sooo 20th Century!

Our young students are ready and eager to learn and use the skills that have been recognized as crucial skills for the 21st Century, including problem solving, creativity, collaboration, as well as the development of their technology skills. I have found that if you have high expectations and give young children a chance to take on a challenge, they will step up to the task. Of course, they need adult support, review, repetition, and a learning environment where they feel comfortable taking risks.

While I continue to be amazed at the fantastic projects my second graders can tackle, I have also noticed that there are some basic skills, both academic and life, that cannot be ignored as we zoom through our days. They are skills that have been around for quite a while, and I don't think they will be going away soon. So, while we are teaching our young children the new 21st Century Skills, let's not forget to check on some other areas. Here are three:

1. Shoe-tying 101: Every year in second grade there's maybe two or so children who still need to learn to tie shoes. But some classes can have as many as eight or nine! As a second grade teacher, my policy is, "I don't tie second grade shoes," and I make sure they find a friend to help them. (I do it in a kind way.) I try to give deadlines (by Halloween, for example), encourage the children to support one another, and celebrate as they reach their goal (I have a certificate). It is very exciting to see the children's pride as they show me what they can do, but they really need to have this skill mastered before they come to second grade. Unless there is a child with special needs, they should be able to master this task before second grade, but they are going to need to practice at home, so I think I am going to make shoe tying part of my Back-to-School Night conversation with parents this year. It is a MUST that children become independent in terms of taking care of themselves and their basic needs, and part of that is being able to tie shoes. A funny story is that one time I told a little boy he needed to learn how to tie his shoes so when he was a daddy he could teach his children to tie their shoes. His reply, "No, I don't. I will get them velcro shoes." Smarty-pants!! (Click here for an interesting shoe tying discussion.)

2. Snacking vs. Grazing: We have snack time in our classroom. The children are encouraged to bring in healthy snacks, and we discuss what is healthy and what is not healthy. I am very impressed by many of the snacks I see the children eating, such as fruit, cut-up vegetables, cheese. Of course, not everyone chooses healthy snacks, and some children will bring in MANY snacks (a buffet perhaps). I have noticed over the last two years that the children have taken to bringing in snacks and storing them in their desks. They take them out at snack time (we eat while working) but then snack time seems to continue for the rest of the day. That turns a snack time into "grazing" - simply munching at will. Since I am working with the children all day, I feel that I must catch behaviors before they become bad habits. I have had to set limits with eating and explain why it is not good to eat snacks all day, even if they are available. I try to find ways to include the topic of healthy eating in our math, science, and social studies discussions. My favorite thing to do is to show the children (and adults if they are in the room) during a math lesson what a serving of ice cream is. (It is 1/2 cup if you are wondering.) It is a shocking demonstration!!

3. Clean Up Your Mess: Oh, yes. Whatever century it is, if you make a mess, you clean it up. If you see a mess, you can help clean it up. And taking ownership of your classroom is just as important as math, reading, and technology skills. This lesson does need to be taught to most of my second graders. But, those little ones just LOVE cleaning. Give them a baby wipe and they are good to go!!

If you really think about it, these basics skills are really tied into the important 21st Century Skills that are everywhere these days (It is responsibility, collaboration, problem solving.) We cannot skip over these essential learning moments, even if they are "old news."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

EraserTown USA (the eraser cities my second graders built in their desks - see first blog post below) continued to thrive during the 08-09 school year. But I have been known to have my own imagination. My parents will tell you that I lied quite a bit as a child, but it was truly my creative side being expressed. I decided to use my "storytelling" abilities to motivate reluctant a reluctant writer. And, I decided to join the EraserTown game. One late afternoon, I decided to transform into the "Writing Fairy." The Writing Fairy came to a student's EraserTown and took the whole town away - erasers and all. The fairy also left a detailed note saying that she captured the town and would return the town once the a writing piece was complete. The next morning, there was quite a buzz in the classroom. Of course, I didn't know what they were talking about - I had never heard of a Writing Fairy!! But what I do know is that the student got to the writing right away! She actually wrote a very amusing story - not exactly what it was supposed to be, but it was finished. And, instead of my feeling frustrated, I was able to have some fun while sparking some motivation. Much better on the nerves!

Storytelling is creative and a great way to engage children. And it can be great fun for teachers. If you've ever listened to Sir Ken Robinson or read his publications, you have heard him say that as children progress through their school years, their creativity diminishes. So we in the primary grades are somewhat fortunate to have the most creative children with which to work! We can learn from them and appreciate what we have. Creativity, as a 21st century skill, is something that the children, as well as we adults, need to be successful. And, I think it is the "fun-ness factor" that can make our classrooms a great place for the children AND the adults to spend their days.

Give it a try. Tell a story (It really isn't lying, no matter what my parents say!!)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

EraserTown USA

Welcome to EraserTown USA - The New Primary Classroom Blog! Here is a place to discuss and share the many ways to promote creativity in the primary classroom--whether it is by using technology in a developmentally appropriate way, designing long-term projects as a way of integrating the curriculum, integrating the arts into other subject areas, or any other way your imagination allows.

If you teach in a primary-level classroom, you might have experienced the EraserTown phenomenon yourself. Now that it is summer, EraserTown is funny--not so much when you are trying to teach a math lesson. Let me explain...

My second graders have desks. They sometimes sit at their desks. I sometimes try to teach a lesson while they are at their desks. They don't like that. So, they find ways of amusing themselves while I am "doing my thing." Sometimes the children will read a book, sometimes they chat, sometimes they gaze out the window, sometimes they go ahead in their math workbook. I have taken to observing this behavior and following up on what is really happening and not just correcting the children who seem to be not paying attention to the lesson. Often times, they know exactly what is going on with the lesson. Good for them, they are learning to multitask!? And at such a young age!! This year's class was exceptionally creative. There were a handful of children who collected small erasers. During desk lessons, they constructed (yes, constructed) small towns in their desks with whatever they could find, and the erasers were the people of the town. The sides of the desks had signs and pictures (via PostIt notes). They had little plastic containers (from the cafeteria) with everything from pencil shavings to small plastic bears. At the end of the day, while the children waited for their busses, the towns were still bustling with activity. While EraserTown does not match our district standards, you have to admit, it is quite clever! And as many times as I de-constructed the towns, those little builders kept building.

Luckily for me, I had many other ways of amusing my students that were academically sound as well as creative, motivating, and cooperative in nature. Even though I work with young children, I have found that they can do very "grown up" things. We were fortunate this year to have the technology tools available in our classroom to engage these creative learners in projects and lessons that would meet their needs, although not all of our projects required the use of technology. Here are some things they were able to do this year:

  • Learn how to set up and use a SmartBoard

  • Use MacBooks and software - right in the classroom - HOORAY

  • Troubleshoot when there were problems with technology equipment (imagine 25 troubleshooters talking at once - something I had to fix)

  • Use digital cameras for classroom projects and act as the "press" at school events (photos were used on our school's Web site)

  • Write, direct, produce videos--one was even featured on our district's cable channel, and we even managed a mini film festival at the end of the year

  • Write their own science textbooks

  • Participate in webinar and videoconference events - they love the back channel (chat) feature during webinars

  • Put together a circus in one week - performed for other students, staff, and family members
The biggest surprise for me this year was when I came back from a technology meeting with what I thought was a funny story for my class. Some of the adults at the meeting thought that second graders would not be able to use a SmartBoard. I chuckled to myself knowing that my students were not only using the SmartBoard, but they were also orienting it (a prized job) and troubleshooting (correctly) when it wasn't working. I told my class what the adults said thinking they would laugh (ha-ha they think we can't use it). Instead, my students responded with words like, "That is insulting." "That was mean." "Why do they think we are dumb?" When given the responsibility, they really do take it seriously and do their job well AND they learn some very valuable skills at a young age.

During the summer months I reflect on the past years of teaching and I make plans for how I want the next year to look. I fear that if I don't respond to the EraserTown phenomenon directly, I will be missing the chance to harness that wonderful creativity for learning and growing. And, now that I have some valuable technology available right in the classroom and know how these young children shine when they are given the chance to use these tools, I know that I will continue to develop projects that include such things as making movies, participating in interactive video conferences, and learning outside the classroom and away from those desks!

Now that I think about it, maybe we could have created EraserTown - The Movie!! Oh well, you never know what next year will bring.