Using Google Docs with Students

Collaboration and communication are 2 buzzwords that are thrown around all too often in Faculty meetings and educational journals. The theory makes sense right? Students should be collaborating with each other and communicating their ideas effectively for a genuine purpose. However, in practice I would wager that only 25% of teachers and administrators truly put it in place on a regular basis. Quite often, collaboration is too contrived or not set for a real purpose and a real audience. How often do students write stories only to rarely be able to share them with their peers and they are handed in to the teacher directly? I think this is beginning to change but technology can help this process speed up.

Our school has fully adopted Google Educational Apps which allows all the regular features of Google Apps, 7498MB (and counting) storage for emails and docs. Best of all it is free. We are using it with Grade 5-12 at the moment and hope to use some of the features with Grade 4s as well. All teachers, parents and administrators are also using it for email, docs and calendars.

Working with Grade 5s, I am beginning to see the sheer collaborative power of it. Think about it. How often are students writing, where you have to have individual writing conferences with them and have them complete the whole writing process on paper? Occasionally, students do peer editing and rarely, do students get to read everyone’s writing. We have had students do their writing on Google Docs and share them with myself, their classroom teacher and several of their peers. I can quickly read their work, insert comments or chat with them while they are working on it. Students are engaged more because they are using technology and seeing their writing have a genuine audience. They then insert it into their digital portfolio (Google Site) as a Google Doc and changes are immediately updated. The parents can email updates whenever they update their site and can respond with comments. How amazing is this?

Not only that but students are giving feedback to each other naturally. I happened to take a screenshot of this intereaction between students on their writing (see image). Notice the dialogue in the chat box?

Screen shot 2010-09-24 at 10.31.31 AM

So to recap, this is what Google Docs does that traditional media or paper and pencil cannot:

  • Instantly share with peers, teachers and parents
  • Allows for comments and real time editing (multiple people)
  • Can upload and convert Word documents to Google docs
  • Chat window
  • Captures “learning conversations”
  • Integrates into Google Sites for digital portfolio sharing
  • Practically unlimited storage

It is amazing how social we naturally are and how we can really collaborate when all the teacher roadblocks are taken away.

The Power of Student Action in Inquiry-based Learning

It all started with a little caterpillar

Picture this, we are 4 weeks into a unit on Life Cycles and ordered over 200 caterpillars for our grade level for students to observe as it goes through each stage of the life cycle. Sounds like a great idea right? Unfortunately, 199 of the caterpillars went through only 2 stages of the life cycle..caterpillar and death. The other one somehow managed to go through a Darwinian miracle and ate all the leaves so none of the other caterpillars survived. Ironically, he ate himself to death. Not exactly a great start to the unit.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending (or this wouldn’t exactly be an exciting blog post).Last week, one of my Grade 2 students came rushing into class, practically bouncing off the walls with sheer excitement. She had managed to find 2 huge caterpillars in her backyard that were sitting on a tree. She carefully placed them in a see-through container (that was much better than our class one) and diligently picked the right leaves from the same tree as she remembered from class that caterpillars are particular about the type of leaves they can eat. She came running to my desk and said, “Mr. Marshall, Mr. Marshall, I think they are molting and getting ready to pupate” All the other kids gathered around and agree. I told her that I thought it was a great idea and we should put them on the display table to observe. Every morning, her and a few others would come in with new leaves and methodically clean the container, put a little bit of water and put them back in the container as if she was taking care of a baby. A few days later, some students excitedly discovered that they were now in a chrysalis. Sure enough, as I looked at them and they had created silk buds on the leaves and were now in the pupa stage. I got out my video camera and used iStopMotion to take a time lapse photo of it every 30 seconds so we could observe any changes. The news spread like wildfire and soon, other students from other classes came to observe these two caterpillars. This revitalized and infused a sense of excitement and curiosity into a unit that was quickly fizzling out. In a sense, the small action taken by this one child had created a huge impact on the learning of the rest of the Grade 2 community.

3 of my students with the caterpillars they found

So what does this mean?

We as teachers sometimes dismiss, neglect or acknowledge one of the most fundamental parts of the learner inquiry cycle– action. This is evident in the Primary Year’s Programme (PYP) from the IBO in this learner profile.

Learner Profile

As you can see from this diagram, action is put on the same level as concepts, skills, and attitudes. In fact, the IBO states this in the PYP Handbook, Making it Happen:

The PYP believes that international education must extend beyond intellectual attainment to include not only responsible attitudes but also thoughtful and appropriate action. International schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose their actions, to act and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world. The PYP believes that every student, every year, has the right and the duty to be involved in such action. In order to make the action component of the curriculum as powerful as possible in terms of student learning the PYP advocates a cycle of involvement which provides students with opportunities to engage in meaningful action.

Here is a diagram of the action cycle:

The action component of the PYP involves service in the widest sense of the word: service to
fellow-students, to the staff and to the community. Through such service, students are able to grow both socially and personally, developing skills such as cooperation, problem solving, conflict resolution and creative and critical thinking. These actions are, moreover, ways in which the students exhibit their commitment to the attitudes that we seek to engender within the PYP classroom.

I always thought action had to be big service run projects like building schools or raising money for orangutan sanctuaries. However, after attending a workshop on Action and the PYP, I learned that action starts with small, student-driven, spontaneous connections to learning that is happening in the classroom. In fact, the PYP planner even has a space to record student actions that took place in the unit during the reflection stage. While working at WAB, it was always exciting to hear from other teachers about some of the action that students engaged. It would also show the level of interest from a students’ point of view and how well we engaged them. Here are some examples of student action that we recorded in our planners:

  • Bringing in books related to the unit of inquiry
  • Creating a poster about an issue
  • Discovering a website
  • Sending an email to an author
  • Creating a science experiment at home
  • And of course, bringing in caterpillars from home 😉

Guidelines for implementation of effective action (taken from PYP Making it Happen handbook):

  • should be voluntary and involve students in exercising their own initiative and in taking
  • responsibility for their actions
  • should be based on balanced understandings and not biased stereotypical thinking
  • usually begins in a small way and arises from genuine concern and commitment
  • is usually, for younger children, grounded in their own concrete experience
  • demands appropriate adult support in order to facilitate students’ efforts and to provide them
  • with alternatives and choices
  • is not always concerned with raising funds.

I recently had a parent meeting and he was telling me a story in which his child once brought in a learning puzzle connected to an animal unit they were studying. The teacher actually punished this child for bringing in toys from home! He said this affected her for months after and she was unengaged, disliked school and scared to bring in anything from home to school again. He was so happy and relieved to hear that I was actually promoting students bringing in games, objects and books from home.

Just Pay it Forward

We sometimes forget that some of the biggest changes we can have as educators often goes unnoticed. One of my favorite movies of all time is Pay it Forward (I challenge you to get through it without shedding a tear)in which Kevin Spacey plays a teacher who at the beginning of the year introduces this bonus assignment to his middle school students to come up with one idea to help change the world. Anyway, one student in his class takes this to heart and comes up with the idea of “Paying it forward” and does one good deed for someone and in return, they must do 3 good deeds to others. This is an example of action at its best. Perhaps idealistic but shouldn’t we be at least striving to foster these kinds of things from our students?

Although I am not working at a PYP school currently, much of pedagogy remains the same. I suppose the old cliche, “you can take me out of a PYP school but you can’t take the PYP out of me” applies here.

Twitter-What is it and why would I use it?

I’ve read many blogs and sites on the “how do you twitter” but haven’t come across many about the why you would twitter. So I thought I would blog about my thoughts on the why aspect.

The first time I saw Twitter, I didn’t get it at all so don’t worry, you are not the only one. It took me almost a month before I saw any point to it. Now, it has revolutionized how I learn and relate with others.

I actually think this video doesn’t show the whole picture. If you only tweeted about how you had coffee this morning or mowed the lawn, people wouldn’t follow you. You need to provide something substantial and interesting.

So what is Twitter?

Simply put, it is a social networking tool. The best analogy I can make is it is much like the status updates on Facebook. It provides a quick way to say what you are working or doing now. However, Facebook limits your status updates (unless you make it public) to friends or people in your network. Twitter extends this to the rest of the world.

You can follow practically anyone. Many prominent faces in the world are twittering from Obama and McCain to Britney Spears and Shaquille O’Neil. Read more about it here

Great, now why would I ever want to share what I am doing with a bunch of strangers?

Think about it this way. Why would you go to a educational conference or workshop? To find out about what best practices are out there, make connections with teachers and hopefully learn something new. However, sometimes you go to workshops that are fascinating and want to learn more from the presenter. Usually you forget about this workshop or lose their business card they gave you. Twitter allows you maintain contact and read updates, new blog posts or interesting websites that they find automatically. You do this by “following” them on Twitter.

Slowly, your network grows as you follow more people. You develop a niche of people who are interested in similar things as you. Once you have this network, you an ask them questions and build on a shared knowledge from this network. This is often referred as a PLN (personal learning network).

If you don’t have a network, I agree it is useless. If you just had a random group of people that you were following, you might ocassionally learn something new but significantly less that you do in your own PLN. I would say you probably need to find and follow at least 20 or more people who have a common interest you. I usually add international teachers or people involed in technology. My passion is technology so I get all sorts of links and great information from them.

So how might I get followed by others?

Like any team, you need to give as well as take. If you don’t “give anything” than people aren’t going to follow you. Everyone has some knowledge to offer others whether it be a good website, a great technology tool or a better teaching strategy. Share it! Slowly, you will start appearing in search results and people will recognize this and add you. This creates a culture of reciprocity. If you aren’t a team player, Twitter might not be for you.

Here is a image from my recent twitter history:

On the left is all tweets from people I have followed. In the middle, are specific replies from others to me. As you can see, each tweet is short and have links to interesting topics or ideas. It’s like 1 big sharing circle! A twitter friend (@mscofino) posted some photos her class had taken about fractions. I am teaching Fractions next week and gave me a good teaching idea to do.

So that is a little about the what and why. It may or may not make sense to you at this point. The best way to understand something though is to go and experience it and defer judgement. Try it out for awhile and slowly you will start to see the benefits and become addicted.

For a detailed how to get started, go to this blog site that is designed by and for teachers: