0910 Reflections: Middle School

Middle School – ah, Middle School. This is such a fun and challenging age group. My goal when I took the job as the Computer Teacher at my school was to have students graduate from our school who could test out of the required Computer Applications class in High School. I don’t know if my students can because none of them have bothered trying but I do know that they very easily get an “A” in the class. The main areas covered during the year for my Middle School students included: Microsoft Office & Google Docs, Keyboarding, Internet Safety and Digital Citizenship.

Online Collaborations

6th Grade did not participate in any online collaborative projects this year. So much of their time in 5th Grade had been spent unsuccessfully (as I blogged about last year) on the Time Zone Experiences project and I just didn’t find a project that was a good fit for them. They did help 7th Grade with a survey project they ran and voted for their favorite Internet Safety videos made by 8th Grade but there were no outside of our school collaborations for 6th Grade.  Both 7th & 8th Grade contributed to a Voice Thread about their goals for the school year after listening to President Obama’s Message for American Students.

7th Grade also conducted and analyzed surveys which had participation from our school’s 4th-8th grade students and from some other educators and students outside of our school.

Lessons I Learned

  • Just because students say they REALLY want to do something doesn’t mean they really understand the work involved in doing it. Some of the 7th graders this year really, really, really wanted to create a newspaper so instead of teaching what I had planned, I created a series of lessons on journalism and journalistic ethics which 7th grade completed and they learned how to use Microsoft Publisher (which we don’t usually use because it’s not installed on all of the computers in the lab) and they produced an issue the paper. Yes, one issue – after that they didn’t want to do all the work involved in creating a newspaper anymore.
  • Students will tell you want you want to hear. I am very concerned about our Middle School students and the digital footprints they are creating. As they go through lessons and activities and projects about Internet Safety and Digital Citizenship, they’ll tell you all the things that adults say they should do to be safe online: No full names, No pictures, Keep online spaces private, Don’t share your password with anyone, etc. They’ll even “pledge” to follow these online rules but most of them are on social networking sites using their full names and pictures and videos, quite a few of them have public pages, they joke about being “bullied” online, they tell stories of how they told their best friend their password and what that friend did, etc. How can I help them to match their behavior to their knowledge?
  • Middle School students work best collaboratively. The most successful activities and projects in the lab have been the ones where students can work together. Middle School students are social – they just are and I need to remember to take advantage of that.

Things I’ll Definitely Repeat Next Year

  • Digital Citizenship Lessons & Activities – This needs to be a primary focus in Middle School, in my opinion!
  • Keyboarding – They really do need to have this skill in High School to get that “A” in the Computer Applications class but also because they are required to type a lot of what they turn in.

What technology rich projects or activities do your Middle School students do? Is there an engaging online collaborative project that you have found for this age group?

Snow in California

The Snowflake Bentley January activity on the Winter Wonderland Wiki sparked an idea for me for grades beyond 3rd. As I was researching Wilson Bentley and snow to create lesson plans for Kindergarten through 3rd grade who are participating in the Winter Wonderland project, I ran into a site by Rick Doble. As part of his work, Rich has exhibits of snowflake images which he digitally altered from Wilson Bentley’s snowflake pictures. This became the jumping off point for the projects I did with my 4th & 7th Grade classes.

First, I read the book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin to each class. This is also available in a video format. After reading the book each class created a timeline of Wilson Bentley’s life. 4th Grade used the PowerPoint template available on the Winter Wonderland Wiki and 7th Grade created a timeline in Microsoft Excel.

After the timelines were complete, the students then download one or more of Wilson Bentley’s snowflake pictures from the Snowflake Bentley web site. Using the filters and effects in PhotoFiltre, the snowflake pictures were digitally altered to create something new from Wilson Bentley’s image. This could be done using other programs such as Gimp (Open Source) or Paint.NET (free image & photo editing program) or Photoshop or many others. We have PhotoFiltre installed on all of our computers because of a project I did with it last year so we used this application.

Once the snowflake images were complete, each student created a slide in PowerPoint with their image(s) and then wrote and recorded a poem to go with their images. I then combined all of the slides into a single PowerPoint presentation for each grade which I uploaded to SlideBoom. Here is the finished 7th Grade project:

I feel this was a really successful project overall. Since timelines in PowerPoint and Excel were new concepts, they kept the students engaged and they all enjoyed finding pictures to illustrate their timelines. The students all seemed to enjoy using PhotoFiltre and I didn’t get too many “how do I” questions during their use of it. They were very willing to just try things to see what it did especially since there are multiple levels of undo available. Most of the students also enjoyed creating their poem though a few did struggle with this especially in 4th grade where I required a Cinquain poem. This was also an easy introduction to narrating a PowerPoint presentation since it was a single slide that needed to be narrated. I would love to get better quality microphones for all of the computers so that the sounds levels could be consistent on projects like these.

Cyber Bullying

Middle School has just finished up a unit on Cyber Bullying. Each of the classes watched and discussed Episode 1 of Adina’s Deck. All of the classes seemed to enjoy the videos though 6th grade seemed to like it more than the other grades which may have to do with the students in the class more than the video content. I plan to continue using this episode with 6th Grade in future years and plan to purchase other episodes for use later this year or next year with 7th and 8th grades.

After the discussions each class created a project about Cyber Bullying. 6th Grade created a 6-panel comic in Microsoft Word, 7th Grade created a Glog and 8th Grade created a short Public Service Announcement using Animoto. Most of these were completed well and taken seriously (even if their project was done in a humorous way) but it amazes me that some of the students still feel that cyber bullying is no big deal or that it’s okay if you’re just bullying your friends. When did bullying of any kind become okay?

This week Lori Drew was convicted in federal court in Los Angeles in a cyber-bullying trial. She may face 3 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. At this point she hasn’t been sentenced and I’m sure that if she is sentenced to the maximum that she will appeal so who knows what her actual sentence and/or fine will end up being. I just cannot fathom a mother making up a 16-year old boy on MySpace and lying to a teenage neighbor. How can we expect our pre-teens and teens to act appropriately when parents are doing things like this?

I hope that in addressing this issue with the Middle School students in my school that at least they will think before doing anything like this online. I do plan on following up with them in the next week or so about the conviction of Lori Drew in the hopes of reaching those who think it’s no big deal.

If Only

Do you find yourself saying things like if only I had new computers or if only our Internet connection were faster or if only we had a Smartboard or any other if onlys? I definitely do this because the equipment in our lab is very outdated or sometimes non-existent but then I have to stop to remind myself of what we are able to accomplish even with our outdated equipment! Here are some of my Wow – Look at what we HAVE or WILL be doing items.

The theme in the Computer Lab this year is It’s A Small World and in addition to learning the basics like: Internet Safety, Parts of the Computer, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Keyboarding, we are participating in collaborative projects with other students around the world. This is where one of my If Onlys definitely comes in. Google Earth is an amazing way to introduce a project like this because you can fly around a 3D world to all of the places where schools are located. Unfortunately, the computers at school do not have new enough graphics cards or enough memory to support Google Earth. I have been able to use the 2D version of MSN’s Live Search Maps to show where the other schools are located. It’s not as impressive and doesn’t run really fast but it does at least give the students some idea of the scope of the project and where the other schools are in the world.

Kindergarten and 2nd Grade are working on a project called Online Autumn which is a project to have students in Kindergarten through 4th Grade share art work and creative writing about Autumn. 2nd Grade started this project using an on-line brainstorming tool and are currently working on pictures of the things they like most about Autumn. We will be creating either an interactive book or a VoiceThread from the pictures. Kindergarten will also be creating some art work and creating a book or VoiceThread too. There are schools from all over the United States and Canada participating in this project.

1st Grade will be participating in a project called How Tall is a First Grader with schools from all over the United States, Australia and Lebanon. This will be a fun project because 1st Grade will get to explore Excel and read some on-line interactive books and do some writing too and will be able to compare how tall they are to other 1st graders all over the world.

3rd Grade will be participating in a Monster Exchange project later in the year that will let them draw an original picture and write a description of it and then exchange their descriptions with another school to see if the other student can recreate their drawing. This is a project that can be done with or without computers but having computers adds an extra zing to the project because you can see the drawings compared and read the descriptive paragraphs right online.

Last year I discovered the collaborative project called Voices of the World and thought at the time how I would love to participate in it. Schools around the world record the voices of their children singing or saying something – for example: Introducing themselves, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, singing their National Anthem, etc. These are all shared on a wiki each month. This year 4th Grade is participating in this project along with other schools from the US, Scotland, Australia, Poland, Sweden, Lebanon, Greece, Norway & more! 4th Grade is really excited about this one and loved listening to some of last year’s projects before we worked on our first project for this year. Yes, this one brings an If Only too – we are limited on microphones in the lab and it would be great for every computer to have it’s own microphone. We are recording a lot in both this project and other things with our limited resources but it would be nice to have more.

5th Grade is just getting ready to start their collaborative project called TimeZone Experiences which includes schools from NJ, NY, IL, England and Australia. They will be learning all about Greenwich Mean Time and reporting on what they and their classmates are doing at each hour of the day and during each month of the year and getting to see what other students around the world are doing at the same hour of the day and/or month of the year.

6th Grade has joined a really fun year-long project called A Room With a View with over a hundred participating classes. The project was introduced using Live Search Maps and will involve taking a picture of the campus each month and reporting on the weather and other information about what they observed on the day the picture was taken. All of the 6th graders will also be reflecting on each month in a VoiceThread. I think it will be very fun to look back at the year once we are done. All of the parents can follow along during the year since the entire project will be posted online in the VoiceThread and on a wiki page that will be maintained by the 6th graders. This project and the 5th grade project might have a tiny If Only associated with them since both projects either need or should have a picture taken each month and another thing that I’d love to have is some digital cameras for student use. Now, I just bring in my camera and it works but it would be great to have some in the lab for projects like this.

7th Grade’s project, Human Genetics Project,  was chosen because it ties in with their Science curriculum for the year. They are currently learning all about Google Docs and how to collaborate with others on a document while they write part of the Introduction Letter for this project. They will then be collecting and analyzing data based on certain observable traits and then downloading and analyzing world-wide data about the same traits.

8th Grade isn’t participating (at this point anyway) in any specific collaborative project because they are creating their own Social Studies wiki. This project will hopefully enhance their Social Studies knowledge and help them to learn new useful and fun tools. Of course there are If Onlys with this one mainly because of the low amount of memory and limited amount of bandwidth available. There are times we run into roadblocks because of these things but that just means I have to think creatively or pair students up in order to accomplish what we want!

I’m really excited about some of the sites that the students are using as they complete projects and wait for others to finish. They allow the students to compete with other students around the world or contribute to worthy causes. If you haven’t visited Tutpup, I’d highly recommend it. All of the students love seeing which country they are competing against and don’t even seem to realize that they are practicing spelling skills or math facts. I really like the fact that the students can register but they really are safe because their screen name has nothing to do with their real name and there’s no chatting or anything like that to worry about having to monitor. Both Free Rice and Free Poverty donate to worthy causes based on correct answers in various quizzes. The students love that they’re donating to a good cause and have fun with the quizzes too.

So there you have it some of my Wow – Look at what we HAVE or WILL be doing items. Would these be better If Only? Well they would definitely be faster and there would probably be less outages and some things might be more engaging but better? Not necessarily. The learning going on and the things being achieved can be done (usually anyway) with even our outdated equipment but … If Only … you can’t blame me for wishing now can you?

Don’t Try This In Your Lab

One of my middle school classes is going to participate in the Human Genetics: A Worldwide Search for the Dominant Trait project. As an introduction to this project, I wanted to fly to all the schools currently signed up for the project with Google Earth. The problem is Google Earth won’t run on the computers at our school – at least it won’t run at any speed that is acceptable. The computers are pretty old and the graphics cards don’t support true color so we have to run it in OpenGL mode which on the computers at school is extremely slow probably due to the fact that we only have 256MB of memory in most of the machines.

I then investigated Microsoft’s Live Search Maps as an alternative. This too requires true color to run in 3D mode but I set up a tour in this anyway and used it in 2D mode instead. This is not the don’t try this part .. yet. This is definitely not as showy as their 3d mode or Google Earth but if you Map All between each school you get some idea of distances. The students were interested to see where all of the other schools are and liked the zoom to street level functions even if the flying capability wasn’t there.

The first requirement for the Human Genetics project is to write an introduction letter from the class which is to include the location of the school in latitude and longitude. I wanted to review this in a fun way so I decided to do the Crack the Code activity as a whole class project. Now, this is where the don’t try this part comes in! I wanted to use a 3d model of the earth to try to find the locations but as I noted above these won’t work in the lab. So, I found Find latitude and longitude with Google maps which lets you move a marker and the latitude and longitude will display. While this wasn’t as showy as something 3d and wasn’t very fast especially on zooming in and out, I thought it might work. Let’s just say so not successful!

Upon reflection, I feel this would have been better with the students trying this (even with the same tool or a similar tool that zoomed faster) in pairs or small groups rather than as a whole class. In our lab we don’t have SmartBoards and we don’t even have a projector so all whole class activities are around a single monitor. Another don’t try this unless you have to item. We do have a fairly large monitor and there really aren’t issues with not being able to see but it’s not extremely engaging. So, why didn’t I do it as a small group activity? We’ve been having bandwidth issues and if too many people are online at once we lose our Internet connection so I wanted to avoid that and truthfully I thought it would work as a whole class activity. I was wrong.

Since we can’t really do this project as I wanted to do it with the 3d tools, I think I may break the no homework from computer lab rule and assign this as homework or maybe as optional homework with some kind of incentive to complete it. This way the students can use Google Earth or Microsoft’s Live Search Maps at home if they have newer equipment (and most do) to find the locations in the activity and to find the latitude and longitude of the school. If there are any students that don’t have access at home, I will work with them during study halls to do it at school.

So, my advice to you if you have older equipment is to really think about how engaging the activity will be without the latest tool. I know I need to keep this in mind when I plan lessons. They might be fun at home when I’m planning them on my new with lots of memory and flat screen monitor computer but that doesn’t always translate to fun in the lab on old computers with very little memory and old monitors.