Excited for the year ahead (and the progress of the perfect portfolio)!

My last post in (GASP!) May was all about our school’s journey to finding the perfect blog platform to host our student blog portfolios. After encountering some hiccups and roadblocks along they way, we’ve finally nailed down a student portfolio platform that I have really high hopes for.

I am fortunate to work for a school division that is so progressive in terms of encouraging the integration of tech tools in the classroom, as well as providing the support to back their encouragement of using the tools. The 21st Century Learning Specialists in our division are truly gifted at what they do and we are very lucky to have them. A hardworking team has created a fully customizable blog platform called School Blogs for all of the schools in our division to use. While it is still in its infancy, the potential for greatness has already begun to shine through.

Today at our PL Day, I was joined by one of the Learning Specialists from our division to introduce this blogging platform to our staff. The room was abuzz with excitement, interest to learn more, questions in order to solve glitches and problems, and a little bit of confusion mixed in for good measure – but the super huge important touchstone that I took away was that everybody TRIED! They all wanted to give it a go. Even if it was foreign to them, even if they didn’t consider themselves ‘tech-savvy’, they all tried. I was like a proud momma hen watching the eggs that have been incubating for the last few months finally begin to hatch open.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that in order to learn a tech tool (or most things in our life, actually), you just have to PLAY. You don’t need someone to teach you most things. Just by playing around and figuring things out on your own, the results become that much more rewarding. And the playtime that I witnessed today during our PL Day was so exciting! We’ve created a staff blog page where people can post questions and answers to problems that they encounter, test different features of the blog out and share Ah-Ha! moments. We’ve also created individual teacher blogs that each teacher can use as their sandbox to play in or use in their class with their students. Once teachers are comfortable and familiar with the platform, we will add on the next layer and get each student in our school up and running with their own portfolio.

I feel like we’ve hit the ground running, but we’re off to a good start!

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The path to the perfect portfolio

All alliterations aside (see what I did there…), I’ve spent the better part of this school year researching, testing, playing with and picking other educators’ brains about different options for student portfolios (big shoutouts especially to @Kathycassidy, @HeatherMMcKay @happycampergirl and @millerg6 for their contributions to my inquiries- as well, the participants in @Neilstephenson’s digital portfolio session at #ConnectEdCa this weekend). From Edmodo to Evernote. From Edublog to Kidblog. From Google Sites to Google Docs. From WordPress to Weebly. It seems that the options are endless. How do you choose?! I’ve had several of my colleagues try a few of the different platforms, and I’ve played with several myself as well. The time has come for the staff at our school to make a decision on which portfolio platform we will pick.

Before the big decision is made, some of the key takeaways I’ve gleaned this year are:

1) It should be simple enough that even a Kindergarten student could learn to use it to it’s full potential (i.e. uploading or embedding images, video, audio, etc.). It doesn’t need to have all of the bells and whistles. Icon based, one-click, drag and drop features are your friend in the elementary grades.

2) It should be intuitive enough that even teachers who are new to blogging and its features can, in a few short PL sessions, quickly pick up on how to use it. Because we all know that time is of the essence in the teaching world

3) It should be available to be used across different platforms (computers, iPods, iPads) to allow for greater accessibility and posting capabilities.

4) It should be long standing – this one is twofold. Firstly, I mean that it should be tied to the student, not the teacher. It should easily be able to follow the student from year to year, with little to no hassle for the incoming teacher to create their class list each year. Secondly, the PLATFORM should be long standing. How frustrating is it to create something marvelous as a teacher, only to have it disappear or go by the wayside a year or 2 down the road? If we are going to do this school-wide, we need to try to pick the best option that is established, and is pretty certain to stick around for many years ahead. (Dear Google, I’m looking at you here with this comment. This is what makes me a little gun-shy about choosing Google Sites as our portfolio platform. Google had no qualms about abandoning the hugely popular Google Reader in the blink of an eye, with no option for replacement. I’m concerned that Google Sites will be met with the same fate.)

5) It should have the option of being either private or public. One thing I’ve learned this year, is that students are far more engaged if they have a large and authentic audience that they know will be viewing and commenting on their work. I’ve seen it with my own 2 eyes in my classroom. They become more reflective about what they are putting out there; My students have been sharing weekly twitter updates about the growth of one of the plants in our room. When they snap a picture and it’s blurry, I hear them say, “Oh, they won’t be able to see it very well, I better take another picture” They know that what they are putting out there has to be of a certain level of quality.

6) It should be simple to troubleshoot, and have a good support system in place for if/when something potentially goes REALLY wrong. It’s like the old adage, ‘Hope for the best, plan for the worst’. We need to have a platform where if something does go wrong, there are people in place that we can contact quickly for technical support.

So, with those in mind, we will hopefully select our perfect portfolio platform this week, and then begin to learn all of the in’s and out’s of using it with our students next year. I’m excited for the possibilities!

What Can Twitter Do?

The notion that in order to ‘do’ Professional Learning, you have to go away to a conference or to a workshop is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Sure, those methods of PL are still useful and beneficial, but there is a Professional Learning tool much more readily available to us at our fingertips, whenever we so desire to learn. That tool, is Twitter. While many have jumped on the Twitter PL bandwagon already, most educators don’t even have a Twitter account yet. Let me share with you the Professional Learning that I was able to accomplish on Twitter within the span of an hour:

  • Thanks to @mattBgomez‘s tweet – I found a great link to 37 free online National Geographic e-books that will even read to students!
  • I followed along with an #edteach chat, where I networked with @MrDKeenan and found a great idea for modelling how to have an edchat on Twitter by creating our own private hashtag to use, to get colleagues comfortable with how to follow along and participate in a chat.
  • Thanks to @TechieAng, I found a new idea for an inquiry experience in my kindergarten classroom.
  • I discovered a new blog to follow, written by an administrator in southern Alberta, and his journey to building 21st century competencies in our students.
  • I learned of an upcoming Professional Learning/Networking opportunity in Calgary, called EdCampYYC. This is an ‘unconference’ where educators get together, and share their desires for learning by posting questions, or ideas for possible sessions to run around. There is a discussion facilitator at each session – but no “workshop leader”, it is just a group of colleagues engaging in discussion about topics or ideas that they share in common. The best part, it’s FREE! Yes, you heard me! FREE!! Not many Professional Learning opportunities come at that price (with, of course, the exception of Twitter! 😉 )
  • Thanks to @jasongraham99, I found out about the next #pypchat, where the focus will be on Transdisciplinary Learning – although, this chat is on Melbourne time, so I’ll have to read the archive of the chat the following evening.
  • While perusing @rvsed I found a tweet that linked me to Barry Allen’s blog on RVS’ Power to Enrich blog site that gave some insight into different inquiry projects taking place across grades and across the division.
  • I messaged a fellow Kindergarten teacher in the United States about setting up our next Skype visit for our classes.

That’s the thing about Twitter – You have to potential to learn something new every day, from someone, somewhere – near or far – that shares the same passion for education that you do. It doesn’t take long, it doesn’t cost anything and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your couch to ‘do’ Professional Learning.

My name is @JenFriske, and I am addicted to Twitter as a Professional Learning tool. 🙂

At the beginning of the school year, my kindergarteners wrote a letter to our school principal asking if we could start a plastic recycling program at our school. Along with our letter, we attached a picture of all of the plastic from one day’s worth of snack that we would be needlessly be throwing into the garbage. Our principal was very enthusiastic about our idea, and posted our letter and photo on the window into his office, for others to read as well. Eventually, one of the grade 2 classes – Mrs. Anderson’s class – saw our letter and agreed that they wanted to take action and start recycling in their own room as well. This led to a grade 5 class – Ms. Carter’s class – to take up the initiative as well.

So, with 3 classes now taking action, we brainstormed how we could bring all of our classes together and somehow make a visual impact to share with the rest of the school reflecting the amount of plastic we consume in our school. We decided to provoke our students through our Units of Inquiry – posing the question to our students, “Now What? What should we do with all of this plastic to help educate the rest of the school on the importance of recycling plastic, rather than throwing it away?” In all of our classes, we showed our students some images of recycling art – artists who use trash to create sculptures and pieces of art. In Kindergarten, our Unit of Inquiry is How We Express Ourselves. Students are exploring all of the various ways that humans express their emotions and feelings, so this project fit perfectly! We are using our art to communicate with our peers that it is important to take action and do something about the huge amount of plastic that we are throwing into the landfills.

Today was the big day! We gathered all of our classes into the common area of our school, put out our 3, overflowing containers of plastic and let the cross-graded groups collaborate, cooperate and communicate together to create their visual representation. The process was phenomenal! Listening to the conversations all around the space, and watching the cooperative working teams was just as enlightening for us teachers as it was for the students.

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In the end, the students had come up with some AMAZING pieces of plastic art to display for the school. What was most incredible was the variety of ideas that were represented! From animals (a jellyfish and a dog) to structures (the Calgary Tower) and everything in between, these students produced some amazing art together – and sent a strong message at the same time (they didn’t even use all of the plastic from the 3 classes, we still have some left over).

After we came back together as a whole group to reflect on the process and hear some of their thoughts and ideas, the whole group came to the realization that this was only THREE classes worth of plastic – that means that there are about 20 other classes that do not yet recycle the plastic that they consume in their classroom. For many of the students, this was a real eye-opener to them that this is an issue that we need to address. All of our classes were buzzing afterwards, and they are very excited for other students to see their pieces of art. And they are hoping that they inspire others to take action with us!

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Birdhouse                              Teacher                                  Castle

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The Calgary Tower               The Eiffel Tower                          UFO

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Robot                                    Train                                 Helicopter

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Rocket                                       Dog                                    Truck

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Jellyfish                                Tower                          Space Shuttle

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Plastic Art Gallery

A new year brings all new opportunities

Well, a new year brings the opportunity to work with new students, in a new grade with a new job description! This year, I am so excited to be teaching a half time kindergarten class in the mornings and in the afternoon, I am the PYP Coordinator. This means that I get to work with not only our youngest minds, but also all of the grade teams on our staff. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with my colleagues as they develop, refine and implement their planners for our Units of Inquiry. No only that, I am thrilled that I get to work with one of the most curious bunch of little minds….kindergarteners! What a perfect age to implement inquiry-based practices. Since they are naturally full of inquisitiveness, why not teach them to start developing good questioning skills at that age? During a discussion about our names, I handed each student a card with their name on it. I asked them to observe their name – we had already discussed that the word observe means to look at something carefully – then tell me what they wonder about it. It took a few prompts, but eventually the questions started coming. “I wonder why some of the letters are bigger than others?” “I wonder if my name is the longest in the class?” “I wonder why we use letters of the alphabet to spell our names?” By setting them up with the prompt, “I wonder…” I felt that their questions had more depth to them.

The four and five year old minds are fascinating things. They are like little sponges! They absorb everything at a rate that is incredible, and with very little repetition, it begins to stick! From day one in my kindergarten class, I began using the vocabulary that is common across the grades in the Primary Years Programme. I introduced this during the lead up to centre time. We talked about some of the attitudes that we need to show during centre time:

showing Respect, Creativity and Cooperation

We also talked about some of the attributes (who we are) that will make centre time successful:

being Caring, Principled, Thinkers and Communicators

Every day, we discuss what each of these words mean (in Kindergarten-friendly language) and what it would look like during centre time. By day 5, all I had to do was ask what attitudes and attributes we must have, and as a group, they came up with all of the words (using the correct vocabulary) on their own and were able to explain what the words meant. You can only imagine the HUGE smile on my face!

The potential for learning these young students demonstrate on a daily basis amazes me! And I feel so fortunate to be able to play a part in shaping their minds for all of the years ahead of them. I am so excited for what the year holds in both areas of my new job description!

An energizing inquiry opportunity as the year wraps up

After reading the book, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv last year, it struck me how differently (or not at all) kids today interact with nature compared to when I was growing up. My fondest childhood memories stem from the times when I was outside exploring, playing and being a part of nature. It would be such a shame for this to be lost on our ever increasing tech-savvy, plugged-in generation that we are teaching today.

I brought this concern to my grade three team a couple of months ago, when we were beginning to plan our final unit of inquiry for this year, Sharing the Planet. I wanted to re-connect our students to nature. It started innocently as saying, “I want to try to get my class outside a little bit more for this last unit” and since then, it has spiraled into something that could become incredible.

Since the day that I brought my concerns up to my team, we have had a wonderful man by the name of Steve, who works for the Rocky View Schools Grounds Department come out to initially talk to us about our ideas and ambitions. He was on the same page as us, that if this was going to take off with the students, it had to be student-driven. Sure, it would be easy for him to come out and plant some more foliage on the school grounds, or bring out some wood so that we could start constructing a school vegetable garden, but who would be the ones to end up taking care of everything? Certainly not the students if they had no involvement from day one of even thinking about the idea. So through our class discussions, we talked about what it means to be a steward, and why it’s important to be as knowledgeable as we can about things like, where does our food come from? Why should we plant gardens with plants that are native to the area? Through these discussions, we invited Steve out to the school again, only this time, he was going to take the students out on a tour of the school grounds to talk about some of the greenery that was planted around the school, what their function are, and why they chose those plants in particular. For some of the students, the look in their eyes just when they were able to touch the spruce tree needles, or pick up a pine cone and inspect it carefully, or split open the small fruits from the wild rose plant from last year that didn’t fall off and realize that they can see the seeds inside…it was all so foreign to them! It was amazing to watch. The questions and wonderings that they generated were truly rooted in a genuine keen interest in learning more. The Hook!

While Steve took questions from the students, I slowly raised my hand. He called on me next and I asked him, “I noticed from our classroom, when we look out the window, there is a burm behind the school that only has a few little trees planted in it. They don’t appear to be thriving very well” Steve’s response was, “Yes, but I noticed the weeds are thriving very well back there!” So I continued by asking, “Is there are reason why there is nothing growing out there?” Steve told the students that a few years ago, the burm was put there so that a grade group could do something with it, but that it never panned out, so it’s just stayed the same since then. Of course, one curious voice chimes in, “Could we do something with it?” Steve eagerly acknowledged this question and said, “Of course! I’d be more than happy to help you out with that!” So I asked the whole group, “Grade three’s, who might be interested in taking this on and making that burm as beautiful as the front of our school grounds?” The hands shot up like wildfire! Excitement buzzed around the kids.

And I have to share…somehow…I cannot for the life of me remember how it was brought up (through all of the excitement, I must have missed a question or a comment), but the topic of rhubarb came up. Steve asked the kids how many of them had ever tried rhubarb. Of the approximately 55 kids outside, 3 of them put up their hands. I was shocked! So was Steve! So of course the questions come streaming…what does it taste like? What does it look like? Is it a berry? What colour is it? After our time ran out with Steve, I took my class back to our room, and I sat them down at the carpet. I told them that I still couldn’t believe that so few of them had never had the opportunity to try rhubarb. I continued to explain that when I was their age, one of my most vivid memories of summer was when my friends and I would raid my Grandma’s rhubarb patch, find the brightest red, most succulent smelling pieces of rhubarb, grab a bowl of sugar and head out to the park. We would lay in the grass near the merry-go-round (don’t even get me started that most of them didn’t know what that was!), pour the sugar in our belly buttons, watch the clouds float by and talk about all of the animals we could see in the clouds, as we dipped our rhubarb in the sugar in our belly buttons and ate it all. The kids were fascinated by this. So now, they all want to try rhubarb. They have decided that they want to plant, grow and eat rhubarb!

Of course, our talk was ended abruptly by the end-of-the-day bell, but as the students packed up and left the room, I could hear them meeting up with their friends from other classes, telling them about the childhood summer experience that Mrs. Friske had and how cool it was. Spreading the word, getting other students excited about the idea of, “Hey! we can plant our own food and gardens so we can experience these things too.”

We are now into the research stage. In class, we wrote down all of the burning questions that they had about Steve’s visit, the plants that he talked about, what would work well in the burm behind the school, keeping in mind that we are trying to be environmental stewards, so researching plants that are native to our area, not introducing invasive species that will take over and require a lot of work to maintain. Once the students have made their list of plants that they think will works, we will contact Steve again to see if he’s in agreement, and then we’ll get the ball rolling. I hope it continues to roll with these students as they move up into grade 4!

Playtime with a new tool!

My favourite time of the school day….playtime!

In my previous blog post, I talked about how as teachers, we cannot be afraid of new technologies or tools, and that the best way to learn is to take the time to play. Well, it’s also important to practice what we preach. My school division is in the middle of a pilot project to incorporate MindMeister into our classrooms. Upon receiving the email in my inbox looking for teachers to pilot the mind-mapping tool, I instantly jumped on the opportunity! While I have used other mind-mapping tools that were good, they now feel limited in their capabilities. Students could only create mind maps at school, they can’t work on them at home even if they save it on their jump sticks because they don’t have the software at home and they are not collaborative. This is where MindMeister comes in! It offers students an opportunity to access their mind maps from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection, as well, they can share their maps digitally with others in order to collaborate and create the maps together in real-time.

Today was my students’ first opportunity to try out MindMeister, and to say it was a success would be an understatement! All I wanted them to do way play; discover how to create nodes, move the nodes around, change themes, change font size/colour. They all had it figured out in about 15 minutes flat!

So, on the fly, I asked them to create a personal mind map about the concept of rights and responsibilities, which is part of our current Unit of Inquiry, How We Organize Ourselves. This involved them creating nodes to talk about what our rights are as Canadian citizens, and then adding sub-nodes to list the responsibilities that we have that go along with those rights. Even my most reluctant writers were flying! Since they are just being introduced to the concept of rights and responsibilities, this initial creation was moreso to see what their prior knowledge on the topic was. The beautiful thing about it (and that I discussed with the students) is that it is now a working document, and as we move through the Unit as they discover more about rights and responsibilities, they can add to or modify their mind-map. A neat feature on MindMeister is the “History View”. This offers an animated timeline view of the creation of the map and how it changes. It even logs the different dates that items are removed/added. It’s a great way for the students to see how their mind map will grow and change in unison with their knowledge and understanding.

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Playtime in action

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What an 8 year old is capable of with a little playtime

I cannot wait to see what these maps look like once we integrate the collaboration piece of MindMeister! And what a great opportunity for my students to reflect back on their work at the end of the unit to watch their knowledge grow right before their eyes!