Encouraging Technology and Science Connections in Grade 2

Computer Science Technology Program

Photo from Vanier College via Flickr

As I redesigned a Grade 2 unit on simple machines in the past few weeks I tried to really think about how I could improve it beyond what it already was with technology. This was going to be challenging because at my school I currently teach English as an additional language, which means my time with ALL the grade 2 students is limited.

I also had to keep in mind that this was a fantastic unit already. When I first looked at the unit, I noticed it had lots of hands-on-minds-on activities that teach grade 2 students what simple machines are and what they can do. Also, these experiments all give students a thorough introduction to the nature of forces.

Feeling that science learning can never go too deep, I initially focused more on the science related desired learning results. However, instead of concentrating directly on the science content of simple machines and forces which had already been enhanced by previous tech integration efforts, I decided to see if I could promote the development of science process skills in some manner with some additions. In my schools’ curriculum, these skills were expressed under four stages (all of which echo the design cycle we follow):

  • Investigate (hypothesise),
  • Plan (design),
  • Process,
  • Evaluate (conclude).

Underneath these stages could be found the process skills of:

  • identifying or generating a question or problem to be explored;
  • making and testing predictions;
  • planning and carrying out systemic investigations, manipulating variables as necessary;
  • observing carefully to gather data;
  • using a variety of instruments and tools to measure data accurately;
  • using scientific vocabulary to explain observations and experiences;
  • interpreting and evaluating data gathered in order to draw conclusions;
  • and considering scientific models and applications of these models (including their limitations).

I began to think about how when I troubleshoot technology issues, I naturally use these skills. I thought about how to encourage these scientific/troubleshooting strategies, behaviours, and habits in my own students. Knowing that students were not as interested in troubleshooting issues around Google apps, transferring videos from various apps to the cloud, or embedding and sharing images and documents into blog posts as I am, I came up with the idea of coding in an effort to create little games that might in some way be related to app based games that students liked to play. In my admittedly limited experience with game-based coding using websites such as Codemonkey, I remembered that I had practiced this troubleshooting and experimenting in a fun and engaging way along with my grade 4 and 5 students at the time. Perhaps game-based coding could also be useful in teaching the science process skills, if clear links were made between the kind of thinking students would be doing and those skills?

With this idea in mind and after taking another look at the 2014 ISTE Standards for Students, I decided I wanted to integrate more technology into this this unit to foster: 1) the development of scientific thinking and practices through experimenting with coding and game development; 2) understanding of the ideas that technology and games can help us simulate the real word of forces and machines.

In essence, I wanted students to know that technology allows us to experiment and understand the world even if we cannot physically experience it.

I wanted students to understand and make connections between the design cycle and the scientific process. I also wanted students to know that thinking like a computer scientist is very similar to thinking like a conventional scientist. I also wanted the technology to help me create opportunities for learning and demonstrating knowledge of vocabulary related to the unit. I thought about how using technology could increase the comprehensible input of my lessons by providing labeled visuals that students could view, watch, and tinker with as they grew in their understandings. I also thought that technology could give students opportunities to create products that would demonstrate their understanding orally, with images, videos, and possibly with mother tongue terms that were related. I wanted technology to help students collaborate like scientists and provide a central depot for students to post all of their burgeoning understandings to and read the understandings of others from.

I passed the first draft of my unit plan on to our tech ed coach just to see how possible he thought it might be to cram all this into one unit.

He liked the idea of the unit but summed it up with one word: “ambitious” which in teacher code means: “There’s a bit too much in that unit plan there fella.”

Taking another look at it, I agreed, especially since I was not even a homeroom teacher! I decided to go back and look at the previous unit plans for this unit, as well as the EAL learning engagements shared with me by my EAL teaching colleague who had taught the unit last year in tandem with the three grade 1 homeroom teachers.

Yes…some things in my draft unit were going to have to be chopped. The real tangent factor was my final project of developing a game…this summative diverged too much from the central idea of the unit. To make connections between this project and the central idea would be most likely beyond a grade 2 student’s capacity. The main sticking point was that I would simply not have enough time with students to work out this segment of the unit and would have to rely too much on our already maxed out tech ed coach to teach a chunk of the unit.

Also, successful teaching of this unit would hinge upon the three homeroom teachers I teach with deciding to teach a technology-heavy unit that they had not had a hand in designing. It would be difficult for me to support all of them at each stage of the process due to scheduling issues.

Finally…the real clincher…I know very little about game design and coding!!! While leading a potentially confusing unit that I would not really have time to teach my Grade 2 students (as I am in fact an EAL teacher) I would be having to learn, understand, and explain a lot to other teachers.

In essence I decided that such an involved technoloy based unit was unrealistic and not really possible. I therefore decided to go back to the drawing board.

I removed the game design element of the unit and focused more on the technology goals that: “students use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues”. I now wanted students to understand and use computers and devices to simulate experiments. I also wanted them to share findings collaboratively using some sort of forum. I also wanted to students to learn and practice a few new technology platforms for creating and storing knowledge for future use by themselves and others. Finally, I wanted students using technology, if they chose, to present their new understandings of machines and forces in tandem with their summative assessments.

The unit plan is not finished yet; I’m still coming up with learning engagements so watch this space.



How I Use Devices in Language Acquisition Classes with Young Students

Photo by Oliur Rahman ᔥwww.unsplash.com
Photo by Oliur Rahman  www.unsplash.com


How do I use devices when working with Grade 1 and 2 students who are acquiring English?

Beyond using my iPhone and iPad as incredibly versatile data collection and learning documentation machines, the answer can be summed up with two words: Babel Fish*. In the strange burlesque universe of Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe this slimy fish allows those who insert them somewhere between their audio receptors and cerebral cortexes (in the case of humans – the ear) to understand any and all languages in the galaxy.

At this moment, devices combined with internet access are the greatest instruments for language acquisition around. They not only provide manifold paths to increase the comprehensible input of lessons through access to visuals, translation apps, and modified levels of text, but devices also give students multitudinous opportunities to practice reading, writing, listening to, speaking, and presenting language being acquired with various creative apps.

Combining iPads, reading, and writing.
Combining iPads, reading, and writing.

Common Sense Media’s “How much screen time is ok for my kids?” describes screen time as generally involving one or a combination of these purposeful uses:

  • Passive consumption: what we might think of as simply consuming the media we can access with a device (listening, reading, watching);
  • Interactive consumption: actually beginning to use the device and media in more active ways (browsing, playing computer games);
  • Communication: using the device to actually connect with others over social media or communication apps;
  • ​Content creation: using the device to create content, such as with blogging apps, visual arts apps, video production apps, or photography apps.

The way I see it, my young students learn nothing from passive consumption; however, I do find our class iPads allow me to curate essential media for learning that I often store on my professional blog in the form of unit-based (static) pages (as opposed to the actual blog page). As I only see my students for 45 minutes at a time, I find it useful to collect videos, infographics, and other online media on these pages. I then install a home screen icon using Safari for my blog on all the iPads in Grade 2 and Grade 1 classrooms with the help of teaching assistants. Finally, I teach students how to “search” my blog for this media, which we always access in combination with more interactive activities.

For example, yesterday, in responding to some questions from a Skype Mystery Location classroom run by Ms.Tara Barth, I knew my students would need to understand the word “hemisphere”. After introducing them to the Skype Mystery questions from Tara’s class, I sent them to my blog to find out what combination of Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western hemispheres our city could be found in. Students, with a partner, had to be ready, after 15 minutes, to describe the location of our city, Phnom Penh, in terms of hemispheres in a short video message back to Tara’s class.

In looking at this task, I could also claim that I often have students use devices to communicate with others across the globe as well. However, in Grade 1 and 2, this communication and use of any social media platforms such as Skype, Twitter, or in the case of an introduction to online communities project-VoiceThread, is heavily scaffolded by me the teacher.

By and large, my biggest use of devices in the classroom centers around interactive consumption, largely related to my comprehensible input goals for my lessons. Students use Google Translate to make mother tongue / English connections and Google Images searches to create visual connections to new vocabulary. Students might use these images to help them create their own symbols for vocabulary words on grids or cards. I also work with students during research on refining search terms when using current kid friendly search engines like Kid Rex. In terms of using devices to have students practice using language we are learning, I am beginning to use more game based applications, as I mentioned in a previous post on where I see the game and play based teaching/learning strategies fitting into my young EAL class. I’m always hunting especially for apps and games that help students make the sound-text-visual connection. One such app that really promotes this memory enhancing, connection making is Bitsboard.

I am also trying to plan more opportunities for creation of content in my classrooms. Right now this is primarily linked to posting of videos in various “cork board” type apps like Padlet to document thinking, as my young learners sometimes have troubimg_7764le writing their thoughts in detail. However, as my students gain more proficiency with blogging using Easyblog and creating videos using Explain Everything, I would like them to start producing more mashups of their own thoughts, be they written or oral/video, and media sources they find to back up their thinking. I also would like to have them create Bitsboard “boards” that combine images of vocabulary they have found, their mother tongue scripts (if they can read them) using Google Translate, and oral readings of new vocabulary in both English and their mother tongues.

*I am not the first person to make the analogy between the Babel Fish and artificial intelligence translation applications. See www.babelfish.com.



It’s the End of the Class as We Know It…(and I feel fine…)


Vincenzo di Giorgi via www.unsplash.com
Vincenzo di Giorgi via www.unsplash.com


Motivating Grade 2 Students to Acquire English as an Additional Language

I was struck this week by Dan Pink’s RSA talk about motivation and drive, especially how he emphasised that studies showed rewards worked for motivating people to complete repetitive physical tasks, but not cognitively challenging tasks. In addition his discussion of how management was a technological advance designed to keep workers on task in factories where work required these repetitive physical tasks made me wonder about my own teaching.

How much do I just try to manage children?

I found it so interesting how studies found that if there was any thinking required, people underperformed if there was an offer of a sizeable reward. Instead, his meta research found that in study after study, workers were more motivated when they were were given some autonomy to control what they worked on, allowed to have experiences and space to achieve mastery of skills they were interested in, and were aware of a sense of purpose.


Engagement flows with greater autonomy. People want to become good at something. There needs to be a transcendent purpose in any organisation’s work. These are of course pillars behind setting up a good community of learners.

I thought about how I might, in the future, be able to apply these findings to my younger classrooms in order to motivate students in their language acquisition learning.

To increase a sense of autonomy amongst these students, I thought I might be able to introduce more choice into the curriculum, perhaps not in terms of what activities students are required to do, but rather the order in which they can do them. I also would like to help students become more reflective so they can see how their efforts cause their learning to increase. Perhaps I need to create more self reflecting tasks. I think I can bring technology into this as well by allowing students a choice of reflecting in writing, typing or dictating responses into a Google form, creating an Explain Everything movie, or perhaps using Padlet on iPads.

To give students the chance to achieve and perceive this achievement of mastery, I need to create opportunities for students to share what they have learned and also make sure they understand that mistakes are natural. I took some advice from this guide to encouraging mastery in the classroom. Encouraging mastery connects very much to fostering a growth mindset in all students. For example, if students have trouble producing the oral language I want them to, I can talk to them about and model how they might use provided word banks and sentence starters as a scaffold to get talking. I also need to get better at helping students chunk work into achievable goals, perhaps following the SMART model. I must help students develop their own senses of self efficacy.

The Growth Mindset

To increase students’ sense of purpose, I will try to discuss with children how what we learn in our EAL classroom connects to “real life” of their homeroom, the playground, the school, and when they travel beyond its borders. The Playfield Institute has also produced this guide on how to increase children’s perception of purpose. I think the key may be taking more time to set up a community of learners, and prompting each student to think about his or her own purpose, or function.

Avoiding the Obsolete Classroom

I also took a lot of inspiration from Prakash Nair’s blogpost on how the classroom has become obsolete.

I thought about Nair’s assertions that the schools of tomorrow need to be:

1) Personalised;
2) Safe and secure;
3) Inquiry based;
4) Student directed;
5) Collaborative;
6) Interdisciplinary;
7) Rigorous and hands on;
8) Embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations;
9) Environmentally conscious;
10) Making strong connections to local community and business;
11) Globally networked; and
12) Setting the stage for lifelong learning.

I was pleasantly surprised to realise that in many ways, the school that I currently teach at could be seen as meeting or approaching most of these criteria. We need to work a bit more on personalisation of learning perhaps, and making strong connections to the local community and business but we are well on our way for the others.

I also found this quote by Nair in particular to be quite illustrative. After reading each of them, I paused to consider what such conclusions could mean for my class and/or school.

We may conclude that it makes no sense to break down the school day into fixed “periods,” and that state standards can be better met via interdisciplinary and real-world projects.

I could see this coming into reality in a few ways at my school. I could definitely see project based learning and challenge based learning becoming embedded teaching and learning strategies at some point. Perhaps simply by rearranging our units of inquiry so they do not begin with a central idea, but rather a central challenge/question. Or perhaps they could start with a single topic, for which students develop questions during and after provocations and tuning in. I could then see arranging instruction times based on the availability of experts who might be able to give students insight into how to answer their questions or add components to their meeting of the challenges.

A question I might have about standards, however, is this: What if the questions that students come up with do not really align with standards?

Another quote that struck me was this:

Yes, we will need enclosed spaces for direct instruction, but perhaps these could be adjacent to a visible and supervisable common space for teamwork, independent study, and Internet-based research…limited classroom space can be significantly expanded by utilizing adjacent open areas while simultaneously improving daylight, access to fresh air, and connections to nature.

When I read this, I started thinking about a current change I’m trialling in my own EAL classroom. I have a large class this year, and the noise level is not quite optimal for the language development of especially students who are new to English. However, our school has many breakout spaces and outside pods. I’m going to trial explaining basic tasks as a whole class, but will then split the class into three sections to actually complete what is usually quite interactive work. I would also like to utilise the pods in the outside passageways and the space underneath our school’s knowledge center for different learning tasks and group or individual research. As my school has internet coverage everywhere, this is totally possible if we utilise class sets of iPads. I know I for one find it difficult to work in my office nowadays and relish our school’s out door shaded places for such purposes.

My Declaration of Independence from Universities

I am embarking on an endless learning journey…


I’m pretty sure that this learning will never ever take place in a proper classroom, university, or lecture hall again.

Rather my “schools” will be my kitchen, a cafe on the riverside, a hammock in my wife’s island village, or a breezy table beneath my school’s knowledge centre. My classmates shall sit at their own beaches, cafes, kitchens, and living rooms around the world.

Due to the availability of the information available on line this week from online course conglomerates such as Khan AcademyCourseraUniversity of the PeopleSkillshareiTunes U, and edX, I’m proud to state that I think I shall never sit at a desk…in a classroom..to learn…again..(so help me Internet.)

And look out “higher education”! It is also my goal to get my students to this stage of learning about 30 years quicker than I did. They are going to know how to learn and have their own strong ideas about what they want to learn, and no four walls of a classroom, unit plans, or adult designed curriculums are going to hold them back!

Upping My Game for Language Acquisition Teaching – Helpful Apps Listed!

Back to the question of games and education.

I’ve explored this battleground before, for example when I tried to decide if I was an anti-gaming teacher. I then moved up a level when I analysed gaming lessons led by our Ed Tech Coach, Matt Dolmont, and found them to be shining examples of integrating ISTE Standards for technology learning into our PYP curriculum. Ultimately, at least for a short spell, I actually didn’t leave my house for a marathon gaming weekend of Minecraft mania.

Do I believe in gaming in the classroom?

Yeah you betcha!

I actually bought my first game, besides Minecraft, last week. Yep. It was Humble Bundle’s “Gone Home”. I downloaded it after reading this blog post by Ki Sung about how educators are incorporating the game into studies of narrative writing as a new media evolution of fiction. From the post, “Gone Home” also seemed a perfect fit to teach metacognitive skills like inferencing, asking questions and summarising.

I dove into it last Saturday morning flanked by Roland monitors connected to a good mixer and the Macbook Pro.

Gaming Central @StudioChezJonB
Gaming Central @StudioChezJonB

I emerged two hours later, completely disoriented, unaware of the passage of time…a mini Rip Van Winkle. For two hours, I had gained empathy for all the characters whose stories I painstakingly reconstructed through inference and summarising of clues that I virtually immersed myself in. It was a complete and total living of what I teach as “showing not telling”, the art of using imagery to make a reader experience a story rather than hear, or read, it. The creators of the game too must have learned that lesson well from some teacher for they excelled at pulling their readers into the narrative of the life of a 13 year old girl, her world-travelling sister, and their parents.

But wait…I teach 6 and 7 year olds…

English as an additional language…

Is there a game for us?

What is Game-Based Learning and How Does It Relate to My Classes and Students?

Tina Barseghian outlines some basic characteristics of game-based learning in her article How Games Can Influence Learning:

  1. It should absolutely involve interaction. The game has to cause students to participate in activity with the content we want students to learn. As student interaction with key language as a means of internalising and using that language is always a goal in teaching for language acquisition, games that would provoke these interactions would be welcome additions to my EAL classroom.
  2. Game-based learning activities can be personalised, or modified, for players based on their current levels of achievement. In terms of education, this translates to differentiation. If game-based learning offers inherent possibilities for differentiated experience based on what a language learner can currently do with the target language, it would seem to be a very useful strategy.

(Video) Games and the Brain

In discussing how game-based learning, involving video games in particular, meshes with current Constructivist and neurological theories about learning, Judy Willis, MD makes a convincing argument that well designed games offer challenges that students can achieve through effective scaffolding. Most of my job as a language acquisition teacher, is to create learning experiences that bridge what students currently can do with what they need to do to complete larger language tasks. The scaffolding that a good game could offer is my holy grail.

computer game by lastspark from the Noun Project
computer game by lastspark from the Noun Project

Willis also describes how video games can foster effective learning by positively affecting motivation in a few discreet ways. She states that video games present students with multiple cascading situations that they perceive will be challenging, but also that they have a reasonable chance of being successful at. When there is an understanding that success has been achieved In situations like these, she asserts that the brains of children produce dopamine, an essential chemical that provides a pleasurable sensation. The genius of well designed games lies not only in the fact that they present increasingly challenging situations that promote dopamine-producing successes, but also that they constantly create what she terms an “awareness of incremental progress”. In other words, these games make the players aware, on a microlevel through accumulation of points, but on a larger scale through reaching new levels, that they are being successful. When achievement is thus perceived, dopamine gets released into the brain, pleasure is experienced, and the player has intrinsic motivation to keep playing in order to achieve another dopamine release.

When teaching English as an additional language to second grade students, I must try hard to find new ways to motivate my charges. Learning a language, learning through a language, and learning to think in new ways in a new language can be challenging to say the least for my students, who spend a good part of each day trying to survive in and comprehend what they hear in an all English environment. I explain how what students learn in our thrice weekly lessons will help them be “experts” in their classes where they will discuss the same ideas and concepts. I plan lessons where students get to work collaboratively and with many different students. I pick texts and think of writing assignments that offer students creative choices, color, high interest topics, and sometimes surprising potential. I gesticulate, use drawings, and show wild photos. All of these techniques, SOMETIMES motivate MOST students, but I have found the quickest ways to motivate ALL students involve:

  1. Pulling out the iPads for individualised research; AND
  2. Playing a new game, be it electronic or analog.

It was good to see this validated from a brain-based perspective.

Next Steps

I’m starting to wonder how I can apply this renewal of my interest in games for my EAL students with my growing understanding of and proficiency with technology. Just in scouring the internet briefly, I found an article related to online Role Playing Games for ESL students that made me begin to think about the possibility of finding a game like “Gone Home” in which students would have to hear and comprehend texts, possibly while discussing them with partners, but for younger students. For the type of thinking related language I want my students to have practice with, most of the run of the mill ESL games are too basic. These video games, with their heavy emphasis on spelling activities and fill-in-the-blank sentence seem to concentrate mostly on spelling and grammar and seem to operate on the “substitute” or “augment” stages of the SAMR model of tech integration. They replace, for example, literacy based worksheets, flash cards, or simple in class quiz games based on memorisation.

Modified SAMR

Photo Credit: katiahildebrandt Flickr via Compfight cc

I want a deeper game, a game that causes children to have to think about the language they are learning, engage with the game, and respond…all while practicing structures and academic vocabulary that we are covering in class. I also want a game that modifies what children are tasked with based on the complexity of their utterances.

Does such a game exist? And can it be played on an iPad, as this is the technology available to my students in my EAL class?

The Games That Won

After a few days of lengthy searching, purchasing, downloading, and playing with many apps on my personal iPad, I settled on the following apps, all of which have game-based or game-like aspects. It must be noted that none provide a perfect gaming solution for a language acquisition class. Few are free for the best options. Most offer a teacher some method of setting up classes or accounts and tracking student progress. Some individualise instruction and play, slowing down lessons or games based on student responses.

  1. Bitsboard
  2. Sentence Creator (Bitsboard)
  3. Duolingo free, PERFECT IF and ONLY IF students speak and read: Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Polish, French, Japanese, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Indonesian, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, German, Hindi, Czech, or Korean
  4. Beginner’s English Linguascope comes with one unlocked module – “In Town” which is perfect if students are studying urban environments, like mine
  5. Futaba reading based, free, Pure fun, multiplayer, with some vocabulary and text-to-image-connection/comprehensible input thrown in
  6. Crack the Books literacy comprehension based but has game like features
  7. Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab for advanced students
  8. Tinybop – toys for tomorrow interactive graphical models that students can label and listen to labels about for a variety of academic topics like the human body, skyscrapers, and plants

I ultimately decided that two of the best game-related apps to have for language acquisition were Bitsboard and a spin off, Sentence Creator. Both of these apps, although not free, allow for teachers to decide what vocabulary they want students to inquire into, and to associate text with images and audio. Bitsboard then makes many games around those words that increase exposure and/or give possibilities for students to produce the language with or without partners. As a teacher, you can modify games to make them more or less challenging, add student “users” so that you can monitor progress, and combine boards to create great sorting activities. Sentence Creator gives students practice in actually putting words together into sentences. Again, you can create the type of sentences you want students to be familiar with. I could see having students use these games as part of a center for vocabulary introduction, exploration, practice, and review.

Duolingo is a good resource for students who are new to English. In their mother tongue, it will give them a preassessment. Based on responses in the preassessment, Duolingo places them at a certain place in the English program. Duolingo then teaches students through a combination of listening, speaking, reading, and typing exercises. At frequent intervals, the app asks the student to play a game related to the lesson.

Beginner’s English Linguagescope also offers language learners a variety of lessons they can study, or be assigned. Students are introduced to new vocabulary then they can play many games related to the lesson.

With Futaba, up to four students can play a game in which they compete to match a rapidly appearing picture with one of four words in front of their side of the iPad. Teachers can add new sets of words and pictures based on vocabulary they are studying in class. You can then tell the game which word sets to include in the game.

Crack the Books is not really a game, but is such a wonderful app that I thought I would include it here. With this app, you receive a “bundle” of ebooks about various science topics such as: trees, deserts, aquatic environments, grasslands, and seashores. Each of these ebooks can be leveled by the app. While reading the text, students have access to videos, maps, tests, glossaries, and other resources that increase the comprehensibility of the text. The texts are levelled very high, but the media that surrounds the text can compensate for this high levelling. If you combine the text with the iPad’s text to speech feature, these texts could become very meaningful for less proficient students.

Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab is an app for advanced English language learners. The app teaches children tier 2 and 3 words about academic topics such as maps, issues of today, and arts before giving them games to play by reading the words and completing cloze-like activities. After games, students are shown how close they are to mastering certain vocabulary.

Finally, Tinybops are apps that allow children to explore various pieces of big topics such as the human body, the solar system, and skyscrapers. Students have the option to, for example, play with the springy stabilisers under sky scrapers that allow them to move slightly in the wind and during an earthquake.

As I am currently facilitating the language acquisition of my Grade 2 EAL students in a unit about urban environments I plan to offer these game based learning experiences, most likely as centers activities during our EAL class and in their homeroom classes:

  1. Bitsboard and Sentence Creator work using vocabulary related to these topics: things and places in urban environments, words to describe things and places in urban environments, issues that bother people about urban environments;
  2. Beginner’s English Linguascope for “In Town”;
  3. Futaba with vocabulary I glean from a language plan I have created for this unit;
  4. Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab centered around the language of maps and possibly issues of today, other areas of focus in this unit;
  5. Tinybop about skyscrapers.

Are games from these lists always going to encourage the deep thinking and speaking I would like students to display? Not always. However, I’m thinking now that some of these games can be modified to play with partners or groups, which will increase discussion. It will be interesting to see how use of these games affects students’ production of vocabulary and language for our unit.

Variations of Projects Key to Student Learning

Poverty and Environment Fund, Forest Ecosystem Services. Viet Nam

Not being a military man, acronyms often confuse me. I find it tough to keep track of all the acronyms we come across in education: SIOP (sheltered instruction observation protocol), CALP and BICS (cognitive academic language proficiency and basic interpersonal communication skills), ATLs (approaches to learning), CYA, etc.

This week I realised from my readings that I had a few misunderstandings regarding PL (project based learning), PBL (problem based learning), and CBL (challenge based learning). In fact, I had been interchanging all of these acronyms and the extended learning tasks they described for years!

Project Based Learning (PL)

As a grade 4 and grade 5 homeroom teacher, I was always amazed at how excited my students became when I mentioned the word project. It never mattered whether the subject was science, social studies, art, or English; I can only imagine that words like freedom, friends, imagination, and creativity bounced through their minds as they did mine.

Initially, I thought of projects in much the same way as I had experienced them in my own school years. Basically, I remember teachers assigning us projects around topics as in “You are going to do a project about the human body.” I recall working on such projects mostly alone, although later in my schooling there were perhaps more collaborative projects. Completion of these assignments forced me to engage in research through which I searched for, identified, analysed, took notes on, organised, and properly attributed information that was relevant. I developed a few visual literacy skills when I created posters and images to share with my peers. I also learned to present in terms of standing in front of an audience and attempting to orally teach the class about my topic. I also remember these projects often took upwards of a week or more to finish.

The Hoover Dam

In reading Suzie Boss’ treatise on Project Learning (PL) I realised that the current definition of PL seemed to involve a lot more collaboration than perhaps the projects I created when I was a boy. For the most part, however, I remember teachers preparing us students for projects in ways that Boss describes.

My teachers tried to present us with provocations to get our minds inquiring and wondering about the topic. For science projects, for example, we might have done basic science experiments leading into the topic.

Teachers laid foundations for working on projects by helping us develop our research skills, learn to take notes and create bibliographies, and organise data under topic sentences.

They used academic disciplines to give our projects relevance. I especially remember this as part of AP U.S. History and English Literature. In U.S. History, we had to complete projects based on research into primary source materials. Teachers discussed how this was the way real historians worked, by synthesising narratives from diverse perspectives from a given era. In English Literature, our teachers instilled us with the belief that we were all writers and literary critics and therefore we learned to follow a writing/design process in our literature projects and to back up our interpretations of literature with evidence.

We grew in confidence through practicing and presenting our findings and projects.

Teachers also created learning environments, from my memory, that were caring, open-minded, and supportive.

In thinking back about projects from my own schooling, I don’t recall teachers helping us create a buzz about our learning, unless in the form of school writing contests and magazines that we could submit our writing projects to.

Anyways…I had a lot of experience with PL as a student. Looking back on assignments I gave students throughout my career in Grade 4 and 5 as a homeroom teacher, I believe I probably assigned mostly PL type projects.

Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Having finished my teacher training in 2009, I had of course learned about problem based learning as one teaching strategy that moved the locus of control over learning from teacher to students. As such, I learned that PBL could foster deeper learning, as well as traits such as heightened self efficacy and independence in students.

PBL, as explained by Gijbels, Van den Bossche, and Loyens: is student centred, should occur in small groups under the mentorship of a tutor, involves the teacher as a facilitator, exposes students to problems that occur authentically during the course of the learning, causes students to examine prior knowledge when encountering these problems which leads to identification of knowledge gaps, and motivates the students to engage in self directed learning to fill in those gaps and solve the problem.

Back from holiday in China. Loved it.

In terms of my own teaching, I have tried to create PBL situations especially in my math instruction. In general, I began math lessons and units with problems that were probably slightly more advanced than current levels of understanding in the class. Discussions through these problems helped students (and teacher) identify holes in understandings. Multi-day lessons then involved trying to solve large problems or engage in math projects, picking up smaller skills along the way that were needed to solve the larger problems. However, many of these learning engagements were probably a bit more teacher led than in a strict PBL situation.

Also the PYP Exhibition, which I facilitated for three years, shares much theoretical commonality with PBL. During these Exhibitions, students worked in small groups with a teacher/mentor to learn about an issue of interest to them and were thus very student centred. Students “discovered”, through talking to various experts from non-governmental organisations, problems in the community and the world. They then thought about what they already knew about these issues and what they needed to research to find out more about. Other aspects of the Exhibition more closely resembled Challenge Based Learning (CBL).

Challenge Based Learning (CBL)

I only read about challenge based learning (CBL) this week but in terms of its ultimate goal that students take some sort of action to solve a problem and its clearly delineated sequence, it seems to be analogous to the whole PYP Exhibition process as well as the designing of units of study based on the Understanding by Design model and the PYP Unit Planner. In this respect, there is actually a clear process laid out for CBL, possibly as a result of it being somewhat proprietary in being linked with the technology giant, Apple. Students are heavily involved in planning all stages of a framework for their inquiries in CBL as part of this process.

In CBL, teachers may present, with or without student input, a big idea or concept. Students in groups then assist in the creation of an essential question and a challenge that come under that big idea. For example, students may inquire into the big idea of conflict between peoples. They may then conceive of an essential question like: How do lack of resources and space contribute to conflict between people? Students then might create a challenge for themselves involving the knowledge they will gain through finding out the answer to the essential question such as: Reduce conflict at school by equitably sharing space and resources.

Bottle dome inside

After students work on these big picture elements of the inquiry that will frame their learning, they then think of guiding questions that will help break down the essential question and help them rise to the challenge as well as resources and learning activities that might help them answer these questions.

Students then begin to find information and learn new knowledge as well brainstorming solutions to their challenges. All the while, they are guided by a teacher/mentor who helps them keep track of where they are in the CBL process.

Students then implement their solutions to the challenge and evaluate the effectiveness of these solutions. After implementation, student groups share their findings, experiences, and solutions with the world.

Relating all of this to my general teaching…

In terms of how knowing about PL, PBL, and CBL teaching strategies may affect and or be applied to my teaching, I feel that these three strategies in that order move from being less intentional to more intentional, less student centred to more student centred, less structured to more structured, and less cognitively demanding to more cognitively demanding. I also know that these types of learning are very demanding, in terms of language needed for students to be successful.

As such, in my current role as a grade 1 and grade 2 English as an Additiona Language teacher, I’m not sure where I would incorporate these strategies yet. In whatever situation I do plan for use of these strategies, I would most certainly have to make some very big adaptations for my students. Perhaps I might need to get parents on board and make use of some of our schools’ mother tongue resources. At every stage of planning, I would need to scaffold language students would need to use to learn new knowledge and express themselves. I would also need to try very hard to help students find sources of information that they would understand.

Where does technology fit?

All of these strategies could incorporate technology in countless ways. PL, PBL, and CBL all explicitly call for collaboration between students, with CBL actually specifying that students need a shared work space for documents, calendars, schedules, information sources, videos for research and presentation. What better collaborative work spaces exist than cloud based office/creative suites such as Google Drive or iCloud?

Also, the creative, reflective, and collaborative characters of PL, PBL, and CBL situations lend themselves very well to technology tools such as iMovie, blogging platforms, Twitter, and YouTube for example. These are all technology tools through which students can make and share with the community and world various representations of their understandings, preferably in the form of digital stories.

From the perspective of a teacher leading one of these learning situations, I and my students can also draft effective rubrics and checklists using fantastic online tools such as Rubistar or Problem Based Learning Checklists. These sorts of tools can help us assess progress through these projects.

One final takeaway…

Dr. Seymour Papert, in an interview about Project Based learning said this:

If you know the history, this is the way that mathematics happened: It started not as this beautiful, pure product of the abstract mind. It started as a way of thinking about controlling the waters of the Nile, building the Pyramids, sailing a ship. It started as mathematical thinking, just edging into real activities, what was really being used.

This inspiring quote will serve as my compass when I think of incorporating PL, PBL, or CBL into my planning. Students learn best through large projects, by working with others, and by thinking about what they want to change or examine in the world around them. The best thing I can do as a teacher is help them do that.


Tech Integration – Where am I?

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org

This week I asked myself, “Where am I in terms of integrating technology into my teaching?” To help me answer, I used the TPACK model of tech integration.

In addition, I thought about benefits and models of good tech integration from Edutopia’s Technology Integration Guide.

Based on this guide, effectively using tech tools can allow students and teachers to:

  • access up to date primary source materials
  • collect and record data in new and highly manageable ways
  • collaborate with each other and experts near and far
  • express understandings using a variety of media forms
  • learn relevant information and authentically assess understanding
  • and publish and present learning.

I also took a look at some examples of tech integration to see if what I do as part of my teaching might fall under some of these categories:

  • blended classrooms that mix face to face and online instruction
  • project based activities that involve using tech to create
  • game based learning and assessment
  • learning with mobile devices
  • learning and using tech tools such as interactive whiteboards, doc cams, and student response systems such as online quizzes and forms
  • web based research and explorations
  • student creation of media such as slideshows, blogs, and movies
  • use of collaborative online tools like Google Docs
  • use of social media with students

My self assessment was mixed as my teaching situation is a bit complicated.

I was a Grade 4/5 homeroom teacher for 6 years until 2015. As such, I planned many lessons that involved tech integration using netbooks, digital cameras, iPads, and laptops. I issued digital homework and gave timely feedback in the form of comments on Google docs of individual students, groups, and the whole class. I enrolled all of my students in Google Classroom, maxing this out with the Doctopus and Autocrat scripts added on to Google sheets. I taught students how to create various documents on Google Drive, how to research using the research function found in Google Docs, how to share docs, and how to collaborate online using Google functionality. We used a doc cam and projector to share and present analog work. I assigned polls and quizzes using Google forms and taught students to create surveys on the app. In my classroom, we had conversations in the cloud using Voicethread, students made documentaries using iMovie, and we learned to make crude infographics using Google drawings. Students with severe dyslexia or dysgraphia made use of accessibility features on iPads, using the Text to Speech and Dictation functions to help comprehend and produce written text. We discussed issues related to digital citizenship as they came up, practiced resiliency in the face of technological unreliability, and Skyped and Tweeted with experts on a variety of topics related to our inquiries. All this took time, and a carefully thought out and planned development of a community of learners.

Using the above model, I feel that I had reached the convergence stage of Technological, Pedagogical, Content Knowledge. I knew what I was teaching (Content), how to teach it (Pedagogical), and could teach and make decisions about the most appropriate apps and tools for research, instruction, presentation, and sharing (Technological).

Then the job changed.

For the past year and a half, I have taught English language learners (ELLs) as an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher. As such I mostly offer push in support for these students in their homeroom classes, last year in Grade 1 and this year in Grade 2. In each of these classrooms, students can access 8 to 10 iPads and 2 desktop computers. For these lessons, I mostly follow the lead of the homeroom teachers in terms of how much tech integration occurs. It is hard to judge my level of tech integration in these lessons, as I really have to focus on language. The homeroom teachers and the tech ed coach usually make the decisions about when and where to integrate.

I have made some notable tech related contributions to the curriculum at these grade levels, but these do not necessarily completely relate to my content focus.

My efforts at helping my Grade 1 team with their tech integration:

  1. I helped design a Grade 1 mini unit about online communities with our Ed Tech coach, Matt Dolmont, that exemplified a TPACK convergence. Students were learning about communication systems and we wanted to introduce them to the concept of online communities where you can join and find out about things you are interested in from other learners and experts. To do this, we had them “join” analog communities that we created based on the collective interests of students. As part of this unit, as a language acquisition teacher, I worked on commenting skills with the students. I also created VoiceThread “communities” that the students could then join and post to online.
  2. I encouraged and facilitated our Grade 1 classes in their making contact with other classes over Twitter. Through these links, students share information and ask questions about life, weather, and learning in other countries around the world. This facilitation helped homeroom teachers reach TPACK convergences. Likewise, I modelled using Google Slides and Skype to make contact with a US Navy meteorologist and a US based marine biologist during Grade 1 Weather and Oceans units. Students asked questions they were wondering about.
  3. In studying procedural texts during our Communication unit, Grade 1 homeroom teachers and I came up with effective and ineffective procedures for making Skype calls and mobile phone calls. Students had to try and follow the procedures, and learned to use these technologies at the same time.

This year for the first time I also teach a stand alone Grade 2 EAL class 3 times per week within another homeroom teacher’s class. During these lessons I can use the 10 iPads and 2 computers that come with that room in the course of my instruction. I also carry a doc cam around with me from time to time and can access the room’s data projector and Apple TV transmission service with my Macbook Pro.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid my record of integrating tech into these lessons is pretty dismal however if I use the TPACK model to help me analyse again.

I say this because I am still coming to grips with:

  • exactly what Cognitive Academic Language needs to be taught during the course of the units of inquiry for Grade 2 (Content Knowledge);
  • exactly what teaching strategies work best with a large Grade 2 EAL class in order to teach for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency acquisition (Pedagogical Content Knowledge);
  • exactly what apps for iPads are out there that are appropriate for Grade 2 English Language Learners who may have little proficiency with English (Technological Pedagogical Knowledge);
  • exactly what apps exist for helping ELLs acquire Cognitive Academic Language (Technological Content Knowledge);
  • and exactly what tech Grade 2 students can independently use to acquire Cognitive Academic Language without becoming frustrated in these three SHORT 45 minute lessons per week (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge).

In this class, I have asked students to use Google Translate to find mother tongue synonyms and Google Image searches to add layers of meaning to English vocabulary. I have also introduced students to online videos and infographics related to personal health that I had curated for them on my blog.

Image by Matthew Henry ᔥ https://unsplash.com/@matthewhenry
Image by Matthew Henry https://unsplash.com/@matthewhenry

These represent some convergences of Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge; however, I would like to go deeper into perhaps having students create innovative new testimonies to their understandings; perhaps, for example, they could make online dictionaries using an app like Explain Everything. Using this app, students could add audio, visual, videos, and textual information to new vocabulary they are studying.

A worry I have about trying to integrate tech in this way is that we will constantly run out of time in our spread out lessons to finish what we begin on shared iPads. I feel this is one of the biggest barriers to tech integration as a specialist teacher. I have to teach my content, but may have to teach the technology too. Will my school administration buy into the idea that, as Kim Cofino suggests, “we are all technology teachers”?