Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mystery Skype 2.0

Two years ago when I was new to this whole blogging, PLN, connected learning thing, I joined in a group of teachers for something new called Mystery Skype. For those that don't know, a Mystery Skype connects your class with one somewhere in the US and by asking up to 10 yes or no questions you try and figure out each others' location.

For my first three sessions, I rearranged my classroom so that my one computer and one projector could show my whole class. We had our set little arrangement of questions, and we were pretty excited to meet other kids. Our Mystery Skypes were fun, but they just weren't as engaging as I had hoped. Chalk it up to something new and different, I thought.

Last year I moved to our new school, and as I thought back on my experience doing Mystery Skype it was kind of .... well, meh. Just meh. I wasn't sure how to make it better, and I wasn't sure how to make it work with my crazy schedule so Mystery Skype went on the back burner last year.

This year I went back to a more traditional teaching schedule with one class of students for most of the day. As I was planning for our study of the US Regions I knew I had to give Mystery Skype a try again;  I knew my kids deserved the chance to connect with other students like I was connecting with their teachers. So I thought about giving it a try, but there was nothing set in stone... until last Tuesday. That's when I got a request from a teacher in Illinois and I thought, "What the heck!" and said yes! We were in!

At about the same time, I had the great opportunity to watch the amazing Patti Grayson model the TPACK framework using Mystery Skype. As I was watching her video, I had an epiphany... Mystery Skypes aren't supposed to be pretty and organized. They aren't supposed to be about your whole class getting the chance to be on screen. They aren't supposed to be a predetermined list of questions. So what ARE Mystery Skypes supposed to be?

  • They are kids working together in teams.
  • They are kids using inductive and deductive reasoning.
  • They are kids using geography skills.
  • They are kids using communication skills.
  • They are kids using listening skills.
  • They are teachers running around making sure the tech is working and not even thinking twice about the kids because they are just doing it.
  • They are kids feeling excited because they have accomplished something.
  • They are kids using technology to talk to others, tweet to others, and discover others.
And that's just to name a few of the things Mystery Skypes are.

What was really cool for me was to see how my kids, once again, just took off. Having developed background knowledge (about Mystery Skypes, about physical features and about map skills) and had many opportunities to work in teams, my kids once again took what they knew and applied it to a brand new situation. As Mr. A. said to me after we ended our call, "I was a little nervous at first, but then I realized I really knew what I was doing, and it was a lot of fun!"

Thanks to Patti and her class we understood the possibilities of what a Mystery Skype could be, and today we ran with it. It was a positive learning experience for all of us, and I know my kids are ready to give it another try! 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sitting Back and Watching

It has been an exciting couple of weeks in my classroom, and it's been mostly due to the fact that I've been able to sit back and watch my kids take some ownership in their learning.

You've read about how my kids constructed their own knowledge about pollution, and they created podcasts (that you can view here, here and here) about wetlands. We bucked the system a bit with this project; we were "supposed" to do a writing piece about wetlands and take a paper / pencil test. Our writing score came from the script that the students wrote for their podcast, and the podcast replaced the paper and pencil test. But my teammate was a bit worried about whether or not our kids actually understood the information, and I was also curious. Does completing a task like creating a podcast result in the same scores as studying for an assessment? To find out we asked our students to answer 10 short questions focusing on what wetlands are, how they are polluted, and how we can help protect them. I was so happy to see that 21 of my 23 students scored the magical 80% needed to be considered proficient! In my eyes that shows that a meaningful project can have even more of an impact on student learning and retention that the threat of a quiz or test.

The next activity that made my heart pitter-patter was an activity we did with the Patricia Polacco book The Junkyard Wonders. If you've never read this book you need to go and find it right now and read it. Do yourself a favor, though, and get some tissues first. We used the story to help us develop the reading strategy of summarizing, and I also use it to talk about bullying, having a growth mindset, and believing in yourself (with an emphasis on the last three more so than the first one). I can't remember where I read about the chalk talk strategy so I'm afraid I can't credit that blog, but I used it for reflecting upon this story. My kids had 10 quiet minutes to go up to the board and write what they thought after reading the book. If they didn't feel comfortable writing or really agreed with somebody, they could add a star or smile. Here's what the board looked like when we were done:

Talk about pictures saying 1000 words! Isn't this really what we should be helping our kids learn rather than how to fill in the bubbles the right way??!!?? Even though I took these pictures, I left this up on our board a couple of days simply because it made me so happy to read it, and I wanted the kids to keep seeing it. It inspired them to write this letter to the author (still waiting to see if she replies to the tweet we sent her) and we talk often of being geniuses!

Finally, my one of my teammates and I co-teach math, and during the last few weeks we are seeing our students grow and blossom. Our class is made up of many students who have difficulties learning for a lot of different reasons, but things are really starting to click for them. They are making connections, starting to understand the "why" behind the processes that they are doing, and, most exciting for us, they are really starting to talk math. The discussions that they have had around probability and geometry have helped them make several discoveries, and they are becoming more and more confident and willing to take risks. Some days, like today, the two of us just stop, stand, and listen in awe because of how far these kids have come despite the fact that others claim they "can't" do it and will never understand.

I'm not sure how all of this will translate to scores on their state tests, and I'm proud to say I'm not so sure that I care. Today, a student who wouldn't even TRY to do problems on her own at the beginning of the year, asked for help and talked her way through a problem on our spiral review. Today our kids who can't developed the correct definition for polygons simply by talking in pairs and then sharing with our class. Today, again, kids who think they can't when faced with a book full of bubbles saw that they really CAN. And that, my friends, is something pretty exciting to be able to sit back and watch happen.