Beijing, books and bungee-jumping

This term, I’m working with at least seven very enthusiastic groups of Stage 2 students on the New South Wales Department of Education & Training’s Beijing Olympic Games & Book Week 2008 rap.

Firstly, as with the other raps which ran this year, I’m promoting the rap blog URL in the school newsletter so that students can show off their group’s rap responses with their families each week.

In case the URL doesn’t make it home, I’m also explicitly modelling a search strategy (ie. how to use Google to find the rap pages) each time the students come for their blogging session. I show them what happens when we type in raps and book raps as search terms (almost 1.5 million hits!) and how the abundance of riches can be reduced by using inverted commas. (ie. “raps and book raps” gives only 5000 possible sites – and, in any case, the NSW DET Raps webpage appears as choice #1).

Also I demonstrate the pathway to get to the blog itself. For the last two raps, many students tried out visiting the rap blog from home, and we received great parental feedback.

Secondly, I brought in a collection of stuffed animal toy mascots (plus others that were already decorating the library). The Bruce Whatley drawing of Tammy the Tortoise (in the Children’s Book Council of Australia shortlisted book, The Shaggy Gully Times) is uncannily like a toy tortoise I had at home, especially with the addition of a battery-operated pocket fan strapped to her back.

Now each group is selecting (and often naming) one of the animal “reporters”, who’ll represent them in the upcoming newspaper article rap point. Each one has his or her own “Press card” to get them into Olympic venues. The animal characters (a flying fox, the aforementioned tortoise, a Puffin Books puffin, a Chinese New Year dragon, a large green frog, Selby the taking dog, and my trusty big, black, furry, bungee spider – it’s a long story) might prove useful for some f(p)unny photojournalism in the playground. We’ll be able to upload the pictures to the Gallery of the rap blog – and they should provide inspiration for some typically Jackie French-esque animal puns.

Newspaper clipping generator: Extra! Extra!

Last term, I worked with Stage 3 students (four Year 5 & 6 classes) on a WebQuest about bushrangers, to complement the work they were doing in class: the Human Society & Its Environment unit, “Gold!”

I started by asking their teachers which elements of the unit, in past years, had been the most difficult to cover in class. Since a lot of home class time was devoted to an engrossing simulation game, the part they felt was suddenly sprung upon the students was the imminent arrival of a “bushranger” (secretly invited teacher or executive staff member), who “robs” the students (who until that point are often reluctant to “bank”). Depending on the whim of the “guest bushranger”, many of the students end up losing a lot of “money”, “gold” and (sometimes) even their gold-seeking equipment in the game.

I ended up creating my own “guided enquiry” WebQuest because existing ones on the Internet encouraged the students to assume the role of a bushranger. (Is it a good idea to have students play lawbreakers / robbers / murderers?) When I came across a fascinating little website called Newspaper clipping generator, I realised that a more positive angle was to have the students be newspaper journalists for a goldrush-era colonial newspaper.

After the preliminary activities, the students worked in small groups to complete a facts matrix using Internet and book resources. During their weekly library sessions, we also focused on the limited photographic and printing technologies and facilities of colonial times, and the need for text-based physical descriptions of their selected bushranger(s).

The presentation format was not announced until all research was completed. Explicit teaching, at point of need, also included deconstruction of effective newspaper headlines and colonial-era “Wanted” posters, discussion of how to select a suitable date for an article, and a focus on colonial newspaper journalistic styles and language (including terms which are not “politically correct” in 2008).

The students’ newspaper clippings about their chosen “notorious” bushrangers are at:

Gold nuggetPre- and post-tests were done to establish how well these WebQuest activities improved the students’ learning. Just watching the confidence of the students as they completed their post-tests told me that the unit of work had been very successful. I shall report further on my findings soon.

Afterthoughts: Ruth Buchanan did a great post over at Skerricks about books versus virtual resources in student research. I mentioned in my comment to her post that our “Gold!” research saw a similar phenomenon to hers, but with our Stage 3 students. With very limited time to complete the task over several weeks, I’d set up lots of “bushrangers research” Internet links from a central online locale, and showed the students which links I thought might be more useful, but many happily scampered off to see what “real books” we also had on the topic.

The biggest problem we found was one link off a WebQuest page: the link was to previous student research from another school (and from several years ago), and the accuracy of that information varied from student to student, even though their final products closely resembled webpages uploaded by so-called “professional” Australian historians.

Similarly, the work we‘ve now uploaded (to the Gold Quest blog we shared with Caddies Creek PS) – to give all the students the chance to share their findings online – is not necessarily 100% accurate.

The whole exercise has also reminded me how much work is involved for an editor to check historical facts in books and websites. I can’t possibly go through every student author’s sources and confirm every detail. To a certain extent, a “chief editor” and publisher must trust an author’s research strategies (and literary licence to express facts in valid ways).

Wicked pedia?

Judy O’Connell’s recent post about students and Wikipedia reminded me that there was a very funny post about Wikipedia a few months ago, on the nswtl listserv, whereby someone had found, incidentally, that some fool had sabotaged the entry on the Newcastle (NSW) Earthquake… to say that it was started by someone stamping their foot in anger.

Of course, before the first post to the listserv was barely in people’s “In” boxes, someone else, a registered contributor to Wikipedia, had gone into the site to edit the entry back again. And then announced their restorative action on the listserv. Which caused more consternation because several teacher-librarians had already bookmarked (but not thought to “Save to file”) a copy of the sabotaged entry to use as an example when doing explicit teaching about online research.

Slam it all you like; Wikipedia is invaluable as an orientation tool. A living, breathing, evolving encyclopedia of everything, written by people who fancy themselves as experts in areas of trivia. (Sounds like me!)

I’ve been know to use the wiki when I hit a topic I know nothing about, and it usually gives me at least a feel for the type of more authoritative information that is likely to be out there, beyond the Wikipedia entry. Or whether it’s a more obscure topic. And when I’ve found topics that have rather lean (or totally wrong) information, and I know something about them, I’ve been known to add data myself: Number 96, The Magic Circle Club, Luna Park Sydney, Star Trek, Andorians… important stuff like that. 😉 Even cataloguers keep a watch on it.

Of course school and university students will be drawn to Wikipedia – like moths to a flame! The key is how we all, as researchers, use that information to keep on investigating!

The joy of S.C.U.M.P.S.

I was first introduced to the mnemonic acronym, S.C.U.M.P.S., in 2003, when I was teaching a Stage 3 (Years 5 and 6) class. Presented in a matrix, students can use the attributes of Size, Colour, Use, Materials, Parts and Shape, for describing, comparing and contrasting objects. (The SCUMPS model can be found in Teaching complex thinking #6122, Hawker Brownlow Education, 2000, and has been used in HSC online activities.)

S.C.U.M.P.S. encourages and supports students, especially when working in cooperative learning groups, to record their topical field knowledge, show gaps in their research or sources, and can scaffold talking, listening, reading and writing.

Today, after demonstrating to the first Stage 2 class for the week how to use a S.C.U.M.P.S. proforma to compare and contrast a gluestick and a picture book, the class teacher and I sent the students off, in groups of three, to begin recording their comparisons between two distinctly different bridges of their choice. The proforma was used to compare a selection of the online Bridges photographs from the Flickr slideshow I set up for them two weeks ago.

The students were actively engaged in their task, and I noted a maximising of time spent on practical issues, and talking, listening and cooperation.

At point of need…

Dragon and lion dancers

They say that teachers are most effective when we convey strategies for accomplishing tasks in explicit ways, and preferably just prior to the point of the learner(s)’ need – which is when they are most likely to be open, motivated and goal-oriented. A looming deadline probably helps as well. I don’t have any pithy, fancy quotes at hand, but it’s the style of teaching that I’ve honed through many years at PSP (Priority Schools Program), formerly DSP (Disadvantaged Schools Program) working environments, plus via my training and practical experience as a teacher-librarian.When these findings match up during my own learning, and my own readiness to learn (not to mention motivations and goals), I only cements my confidence that I’m on the right track. I wasn’t ready to learn about wikis until I was ready to teach about them. I wasn’t ready to learn about abseiling until I was ready to help students learn how to do it. I wasn’t ready to learn to ride a bicycle until – well, no need to go into that anecdote. The ducks in Centennial Park haven’t forgiven me yet.

On Sunday, knowing that Early Stage One and Stage One were to be studying Chinese New Year this week, and Stage 2 was to be studying Buildings and bridges, I went into the city with a borrowed digital camera and took lots of photographs of the Chinese New Year Festival Parade, plus assorted Sydney bridges. My intention is that we will use these images to create some wiki pages, and some group-negotiated, well-researched, descriptive captions (using SCUMPS, but more on that later). How to get the Photoshopped images available – and guarantee having access to them at school – for Monday morning’s classes, especially since I use an iMac at home and several, variable quality PCs at school, none of which seem to like my Mac-altered images or memory sticks?

The obvious answer was to upload the photographs to my Flickr account – to show them as a slideshow – and to finally learn how to shunt thematic images into special folders. It was all so much easier than I expected – so why was I so hesitant all these months/years? (We don’t have an interactive whiteboard at school yet – but I can already imagine some of the ways I will be able to use the board with students and teachers.)

The two lessons worked extremely well. I set up a Flickr slideshow on adjacent computers (Bridges – Stage Two or Chinese New Year K-2), and selected student volunteers to manipulate the mouse that would kept the slideshows progressing. I explained to the students and their teachers that we would be setting up a SCUMPS matrix (stay tuned!) on wiki pages so that groups of students could collaborate on descriptive factual writing into each of the matrix cells, which we’d then upload to the Internet at the touch of a mouse. That’s the plan, anyway. Who knows where this may lead once the students and teachers have their input?

I’d just finished patting myself on the back for accomplishing my goals, and started to head off for lunch, when a new staff member asked about looking for particular resources in the Teacher Reference section of the library. I almost set him off to the correct shelf, with a mere finger point, when I realized that, since he was suddenly at that “point of need” (and, under normal circumstances, I’d be at lunch), I’d do a quick bit of explicit teaching – and demonstrate OASIS Web enquiry for him. It was very successful, brief session, and we located better resources than if I’d relied on my memory, or the luck of random shelf-browsing. The teacher was excited about testing out remote access to from home, using the My library hyperlink on his Portal page.

Also, coincidentally, I happened to see a reference to the second annual ALIA (Australian Library and Information Association) Library Lovers promotion on the upcoming Valentine’s Day (thanks Victor over at the nswtl listserv) on the 14th February. Somehow, I managed to overlook this quirky event last year and, at first, I thought it a rather dubious connection, attempting to cash in on Valentine’s Day. But then, thinking back to my impromptu demo lesson on OASIS Web enquiry but I suddenly realised that holding a Library Lovers morning tea for the staff on Thursday will finally secure me the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the new web tool to the whole staff at once. Up until now, I’ve only been able to do a few 1:1 orientations (at point of need), but without a firm deadline – ie. my own point of need – I guess I’ve been procrastinating, and all staff members do need to know about Web enquiry.

I quickly cleared the event with the Principal, and made up the invitations on pink paper, using the graphics supplied on the ALIA website. One of the staff chuckled over her invitation, “Cool! It’ll be the only action I get on Valentine’s Day. My husband’s in Victoria this week.”

Oh – and I should point out that, yesterday, I didn’t have hyperlinks to reply upon to use my slideshows and I was trying to prevent the students scrolling into my other (very off-topic) Flickr photos. It was only in the wee hours of this morning that I realised that Flickr would permit me to quote separate URLs for themed sets! Another exciting discovery that will greatly improve today’s activities (ie. the next two batches of guinea pigs, er, students).