Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Virtual Field Trips (VFTs)

School field trips are an amazing opportunity to make learning authentic and to motivate and engage students in their learning.  They offer a break from the normal routine and instructional strategies that occur in the classroom and they expose students to new experiences and appeal to all styles of learning – visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Field trips expand children's learning and increase student knowledge and understanding of a subject by adding realism to the topic of study. 

Thus, field trips lead to better understanding and greater achievement due to the students’ observation of real-life application of their lessons.  That said, there are some disadvantages to planning field trips for a class, some of which are listed below:
  • Cost – to students, to school, of buses
  •  Inclement weather
  •  Parent concerns
  •  Availability of supervisors
  •  Extra preparation and organization is required
  •  Accessibility for all students
While the advantages of field trips are quite demonstrated, many times the disadvantages outweigh these and organizing a field trip may not be feasible.  In this case, why not plan a virtual field trip for your class?

Virtual field trips (VFTs) use the Internet to take your class on a field trip via an online guided exploration i.e. a virtual online tour.  There are many VFTs that are available online and these range from basic websites that contain text-based information to detailed floor plans with video tours.  After browsing some of the VFTs available online, I definitely see myself using this in my junior and secondary classes.

To prepare for your VFT, you should ensure that it is directly related to the subject matter being covered in class.  Teach an introductory lesson that covers the basics of the subject matter covered in the VFT, book the computer lab for the VFT and ask students to bring earphones.  Another fun idea (for junior students) is to send home a “permission form” for the VFT in order to advise parents about it and provide them the opportunity to discuss the VFT with their child.

On the day of your VFT, first show the VFT site to the entire class using a projector and show them how to navigate the site.  Remind them of the expected behaviour (ie. no surfing other sites!), point out “must sees” and demonstrate how to explore the VFT site.  Lastly, provide the students with guided questions to answer throughout their VFT in order to ensure their learning.

At this point, have the students navigate to the VFT site and explore it.  I believe that students would enjoy doing this activity in pairs and I would expect one set of answers from each pair.  Give your students the option of typing their answers on the computer (in Word or a Google document) or writing them out.

The experience of a VFT is an under-used one and can be used to “visit” places that would not be possible on a regular field trip.  After researching VFTs online, I have listed some great ones below.  

Some Virtual Field Trip Destinations:
Student Challenge: Create Your Own VFT!

After taking your students on some VFTs, why not challenge your students to create their own VFT?  Take the time to explain your expectations and model the platform you want your students to use. Create a simple VFT in real time in class and show the students how this can be done.  In simplest form, this could be a PowerPoint presentation or a LiveBinder that includes links, videos and photos.  In more complicated form, this could involve using online tools to create a VFT.

Challenging your students to create their own VFT is an amazing, rewarding project that would allow them to present researched information in a fun, creative product that is novel and engaging.  Once done, post the student-created VFTs on the class website,  encourage classmates to attend their peers’ VFTs and evaluate them. Alternatively, take a little time each day to showcase a VFT using a SmartBoard in the class. This performance task would be allow for differentiated instruction and cater to all learners who would be able to make their VFT as simple or as complicated as they wish, according to their learning needs.

I believe that Virtual Field Trips will enrich the learning of all students and engage them in student-centred learning, allowing them to actively construct their own knowledge. The next time you are planning a unit/cycle of study, try to integrate a VFT – your students will thank you for it!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Using Technology in the Junior Classroom

Incorporating technology in the classroom is an effective way to engage today’s students and educate them in 21st century fluencies.  A variety of tools and resources are available for teachers and their students. In my secondary school classes, I routinely use a variety of technology tools including PowerPoint, Document Cameras, Livescribe technology, Poll Everywhere, Google Tools, Edublogs and LiveBinders

I am currently completing my Junior Division ABQ and have been posed the question of using technology in the junior classroom.  Am I able to use these same tools in the junior classroom?  The answer is ‘yes’ for some of these tools and ‘no’ to others.  For example, I routinely used Poll Everywhere in my classrooms as a means to engage my students in a way that allows them to use their cell phones/iPads/laptops to augment their learning.  This would not be the case in a Grade 4, 5 or 6 classrooms since the majority of these students may not have such devices as a result of their age.  Some tools that may be especially helpful in teaching language arts in the junior grades are discussed below.

Starting a class blog with general information, homework postings and lesson information is definitely a “must-do” for every teacher.  This platform of communication is user-friendly and allows the teacher to post important information for the class.  The blogging platform effectively engages students and parents alike and allows them to view the classroom happenings through a unique lens.

Teachers can take the blog concept further and create blogs for each of their students (these can be linked to the main class blog).  Students can post on their blog for a variety of reasons – journal reflections, research summaries or even answering questions posed in class.  By providing the blog as a platform to submit assignments, the teacher is motivating the students to prize their work and polish it so it’s worthy of publishing i.e. posting on their blog.  Older students, especially, have a heightened awareness of the value of work posted in the Internet and by giving them the responsibility of posting to a blog, the teacher is allowing the student to take ownership and pride in their work to a new level. 

The ability to blog is one of the “new literacies” that our students are expected to be well versed in.  Blogging allows students to fine-tune their thinking and writing skills and work on all aspects of the writing process including proofreading and editing.  As well, when using student blogs in the classroom, a teacher is able to stress the importance of Internet safety and good digital citizenship while modeling these values.

Great blogging platforms to use include Edublogs, KidBlog, Blogger and Wordpress.  I personally have used Edublogs Pro (paid account) for my Gr. 9 Applied Science class with great success (click here to view the class blog).

This tool allows collaboration between students in a completely new way.  The next time you assign a project in pairs or groups, ask that the group put their work into a Google Doc.  The platform is similar to MS Word, except that multiple users can edit and change the same document in real time.  Just think of it as a “chat window” in which all users can edit each others’ work.  This is a phenomenal way for students to collaborate with each other and with their teacher.  It allows the students to practice teamwork and social skills on a whole new level.

Melanie Wiscount of Wilkes University summarizes the use of Google Docs in the classroom very well in the following slideshare presentation.
Google Docs in the Classroom
View more PowerPoint from mwiscount

Skype has revolutionized communication in a way that is as dramatic as the first phone had.  Skype allows you to video call anyone, anywhere and chat with them.  I use Skype every day to keep in touch with my sister and my Mom in Chicago and with family in India and worldwide, but can this tool be used in the classroom as well?  The answer is a resounding ‘YES’!!

Skype has launched “Skype in the Classroom” which “is a free and easy way for teachers to open up their classroom. 
Meet new people, talk to experts, share ideas and create amazing learning 
experiences with teachers from around the world.” An example of one of the featured projects at this site involves “Skyping” with Park Rangers from Yellowstone National Park and learning about a variety of things such as geology, ecology and cultural history.  This program facilitates connections and collaboration between teachers and classes who may geographically very far apart but on the page with regards to curriculum and classroom topics.

I see myself using Skype in a much more basic way.  For example, if I am teaching my Grade 5 students about environmental impact of garbage and recycling, I would love to take them on a field trip to the local city-run recycling plant.  If this trip were not feasible, it would be great to connect with the recycling plant’s community engagement person and arrange a Skype “visit” in the classroom. This would allow the expert guest speaker to “visit” our class and allow the students to interact with him/her and ask questions.  In this was, Skype could be used to bring any expert into the classroom as a guest speaker.

Livescribe technology is one of my favourite technologies for differentiated instruction.  Livescribe technology consists of a special pen and paper that records writing and audio simultaneously.  A quick description of Livescribe technology is shown below along with “10 ways to integrate the Livescribe Echo Smartpen into your classroom” (courtesy of Two Minute Tech Tips, YouTube).


According to VOKI, it is “a great way to have students share their knowledge of a topic in 60 seconds or less. Makes students organize their thoughts to focus on key details.”  This site allows students to create a speaking cartoon avatar and describes its function as anabling users to express themselves on the web in their own voice using a talking character. You can customize your Voki to look like you or take on the identity of lots of other types of characters… animals, monsters, anime etc. Your Voki can speak with your own voice which is added via microphone, upload, or phone.

This can be integrated in the classroom in a variety of ways and teachers can use the “Lesson Plans” tab on the Voki site to explore lesson plans created b y other educators.  I see myself using this tool in lieu of an oral presentation.  Students would enjoy creating their Voki character, voice and script and would especially enjoy watching the Vokis created by their classmates.  This adds a new twist to presentations and would motivate students to learn and communicate concepts due to the novel product that they would create.

Kinect in the Classroom
This is a tool that I have not yet had the chance to use in the classroom, but I am excited for the opportunity to try it out.  Microsoft has listed many ideas of how to use Kinect in the Classroom and has posted the following video on YouTube.

I found this teacher’s blog especially helpful in understanding how Kinect can be used in the classroom and hope to be able to implement some of these techniques in junior classroom of mine.  The gamification of learning motivates students and engages them in a new way and use of the Kinect allows teachers to explore kinesthetic learning and teaching methods.

As professionals, teachers are committed to engaging and motivating students to learn in a variety of different ways through different multiple intelligences and the technology tools described above allow teachers to do this in a unique way.  Just as we commit to ongoing professional learning in all areas of teaching, we must remember to continually learn how to use new technology tools and how to incorporate them into our regular classroom practices.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Classrooms of the Future

So much has changed in the classroom since I was a young student.  When I first heard of constructivism and student-centred learning in my B.Ed. program, I was baffled.  What happened to the "good ol' days" of teachers lecturing and the students frantically scribbling notes down??  Were these really effective learning opportunities?  While some "old school" adults hold the belief that "we learned that way and we turned out fine", others recognize the fact that this method of teaching is no the be all and end all of pedagogy.  Throughout my B.Ed. courses and my teaching practices, I have strived to be an effective teacher by differentiating instruction and adjusting my teaching style to incorporate different learning styles and multiple intelligences.

An “Ideal” Classroom Design

In order to aid this major paradigm shift in teaching and learning, we must support it via the physical environment in which we teach.  No longer is the ideal classroom one in which all the desks are in rows, facing forward while the students quietly focus on the teacher as the "sage on the stage".  The ideal classroom, in terms of physical space has evolved into a very different concept.  While, I have not had an opportunity to teach or to set up my own ideal classroom, I researched many different ideas on what the ideal classroom should include, some of which are listed below (courtesy of www.educause.edu/ero/article/future-learning-space-breaking-out-box)

     “Writeable surfaces—everywhere in the classroom—that capture and store everything written on them (see, for example,
     Real-time blogging in the classroom—students building collaborative notes on the course site or a wiki
     Classroom chat rooms—for example, with a teaching assistant (TA) monitoring students’ meta-conversation, including a TA-moderated Instant Messaging "back channel"
     Dynamically available bandwidth provisioned to and within a room, allowing students to safely access and download rich media objects without choking the local network segment
     Ubiquitous access to videoconferencing, so simple and intuitive that multisite conversations are "natural" extensions of classroom discussion
     Video/data-enhanced real-time capture and asynchronous discussion and annotation tools”
The above points focus on embedding technology in the classroom, however I believe that there is more to it than just technology.  Some ideas of my own include:
-     comfortable seating areas including desks, chairs, sofas and carpet that promote collaborative learning and group work
-     access to outdoor spaces for outdoor learning opportunities
-     natural lighting and visually appealing posters/artwork
-     open space for kinaesthetic learning
-     access to art supplies for visual learners and creative expression
-     access to different technology including LiveScribe Pens, netbooks/laptops/tablets, document camera, SmartBoard etc.
-     overall safe, supportive and incusive environment

While there are many more ideas (the list can be endless) we need to focus on what exactly we can implement in our immediate classroom environments.  This may be as simple as rearranging student desks into groups and setting up different learning stations that reflect different learning styles.  By accommodating our students' different learning styles through our pedagogy and physical space, we are demonstrating our commitment to our students and to their learning.  As well, we are demonstrating our ongoing professional practice and professional knowledge when we research the latest technologies and explore their use in our classrooms.