Mystery Skype club

Last year my class did MANY mystery skype sessions – about 30 I think they counted! This year we have done only 2 so far – one with a school in England, and one in the USA. This week I will be working with a group of kids from across the grade – a few from each of the 4 classes – in our clubs session introducing them to mystery skype. One of my colleagues did some mystery skypes last year, and another is interested in doing them with her class. Our hope is that by doing a couple of mystery skypes in our club sessions, each class will have some kids that have some experience and can then help their classmates when they try it out in their own classes.


PSP’s… Personal Study Projects

In my class I like to do a project with my kids that I call PSP’s – Personal Study Projects. I usually do it 2 or 3 times a year, however this year with all our Mystery Skyping, 9to9 Skype Marathon, newspaper and newscast, we only had 1 cycle this time. It’s kind of a shame since the 2nd & 3rd time they get so much better, but the other projects we did were great experiences for them, and we can’t do everything!

I like to do PSP’s in January – it makes a good transition between our study of ancient China that finishes in December, and our study of ancient Greece which starts (usually) in late January, early February. In 5th grade we study the concepts of Culture and Progress, through ancient Civilizations. For this project, the students can select any topic that relates to those concepts or any ancient civilization. They can also choose how they want to document and share their learning. This year we had a lot of posters, some models, a newspaper, and a book that included non-fiction info, poetry and diary entries. They also presented their work to the class, and then we shared with families at our Curriculum Share.

For this project the kids do about half the work at school, and half at home. Some do a lot of extra work at home so it’s not quite half and half for them. They create research questions, do research, adjust their questions or add more, and really investigate until they find out what they were interested in learning. Nearly all of the kids used their class time well, but of course some didn’t. At any point they can share and ask for feedback from classmates or myself, and they could use our passion project time to work on it if they chose. They had a deadline – something new for many of my kids who like to say, “Can we work on this more tomorrow?” It was good for them to have a firm deadline to work towards. Many kids took advantage and shared their Google docs with me. They would then email me or write their name on the board when they wanted me to give them feedback with a note about what they were looking for feedback on. Not all of the kids took advantage of this, but I deliberately left it as a choice. I wanted to see who would ask for feedback and who wouldn’t. To see who took it as an opportunity to improve their work before it was finished. At the beginning of the project we had talked about doing independent projects and some of the pitfalls that can occur, and how to avoid them, how they can help keep themselves on track, not leave it to the end etc. But I had told them that for this project it was truly independent. They would have ‘work on project’ as their social studies homework each week, but I wouldn’t be checking if they did anything or not. It was up to them. I would give them as much help and feedback as they wanted, but I wouldn’t be reminding them every day to work on it for homework, chasing them to check what they were up to, or anything like that. We talked about setting goals, I modeled for them how a project could be broken down into smaller chunks that could be completed and then used as building blocks for the final project. We had discussions about taking responsibility, they were excited to have this chance to show what they could do without being reminded and checked up on. And everyone agreed on the expectation that it be completed by the 25th of January and that if it wasn’t they would spend that day in the library working on it.

The deadline was January 25th, and this worked out as a very convenient and motivating date! January 26th is Australia Day, and I have always celebrated this with my class in NYC as a special day – doing Australian projects, learning about the country and people, and sharing with them some Aussie treats that I managed to get during either visits home or family visiting me. Fortunately for my class this year, my Mum had come to visit me for most of January, February and March, so she had brought plenty of goodies! As the 26th fell on a Saturday this year, I had told my class that we would celebrate it on the 25th, the Friday. However, the requirement for participating in Australia Day celebrations was a completed PSP that they were happy submitting and which they could complete a self-evaluation using the rubric they had been given at the beginning of the project. Anyone who didn’t think they were ready to do their self-evaluation and submit their project could have as much time as they needed to work on it in the library that day.

I was very proud of how diligent many of the students were, and how they supported each other through the whole process. They gave each other reminders – not to leave it to the last minute, to share with each other and with me for feedback, to remember to draw some of the illustrations not print them all. One of my favourite things was that the student who chose to study the clothing of ancient Egypt, India and Rome made the appropriate clothing from each culture for her Barbie dolls, and brought them as part of her project. Loved that! (you can see them in the photos) They shared their progress in morning meetings, asked classmates for suggestions to improve their work, asked for feedback from me to make sure they were on track and give them suggestions. After they did their self-evaluation, they reflected on what they learned about doing projects like this, and this is the main reason I’m disappointed they didn’t get a chance to do a 2nd one. They each identified something they would do differently in their process – take notes differently, organize ideas in a different way, organize time better, have a different product to share what they had learned. I will have to hope they will remember, and apply it to projects in 6th grade next year.



Alternative Classroom Furniture pt 2: An Epic Win

So in my last post I explained how because of the small, oddly shaped classroom I have I wanted to change the furniture to give my students a more flexible learning space. Well this experiment turned out to be an epic win! My students were excited but a little unsure when they first arrived – what did I mean they weren’t going to have assigned seats. Or even all have seats! I explained to them how we were experimenting this year to try and see if we could have more flexible learning spaces with lighter, easier to move furniture, different height tables and different seating options. As we had only 2 Hokki stools, we agreed the kids would rotate through so everyone could have a turn to see how they liked them. We talked about how for some classes they might prefer one option, and for other lessons they might want a different option, and that was all ok! I also explained to them that we would evaluate periodically to see what we might need to change, swap or get more of. They were pretty excited then to know they were the only class with this alternate furniture and that we were like a test classroom!

After just a few weeks, it was very clear that this was going to be successful. We decided to order 4 more Hokki stools and get rid of some of the regular purple chairs. This was great because the chairs have a huge footprint and the stools don’t, so it gave us more space to move around. The stools also can be put completely under the table out of the way. Another big success was that with the small tables, once I taught the kids how they were to be safely moved, we could very quickly move them out of the way and have a lovely space for class meetings or games.  This was a HUGE improvement over the previous large round table which could barely be moved.

At various points in the year we talked about what was working or not working, and what we needed to adjust. Overwhelmingly the kids loved the ability to choose what type of seat and table to use. It was interesting for me to see how some students ended up using the same option for nearly all lessons, where others would use one option for maths, but a different option for writing. At the beginning, when the Hokki stools were still a novelty, some kids rocked just because they could, but as we added more of them and they became just another seat, a curious pattern emerged. I noticed that when students were writing, or speaking in a discussion or project work, they would tilt forward on the stools. When they were thinking, or listening during a discussion, they would sit back and rock from side to side.  This pattern was pretty consistent for all the kids and for the rest of the year. There is probably some left brain – right brain reason for that which I’d be interested in learning about!

The kids also developed ways to use the cube seats that I hadn’t thought of. The cushion is attached to the cube with velcro, and easily removed. What became a popular option was to take off the cushion, lay it on the floor to kneel on and then use the cube part as a little personal desk. This worked out brilliantly, because a couple of the kids who really liked doing that were ones who could be easily distracted at a bigger table with classmates, and so when they self-selected it they noticed themselves how much more productive they could be. The benefit to having no assigned seating in this case meant that they could sit separately when they chose to, when they knew they needed to focus, but still sit with classmates in other lessons or when working on different projects. Win – win.

We had a lot of visitors from other classes coming to check out our furniture, and Hokki stools soon started arriving for other classes. They make a great alternative to yoga balls – same effect, more durable. They are a little more expensive, but since they will last at least twice as long, it’s worth the investment. We were even able to use the Hokki stools as points in our co-ordinate geometry unit! Since we had 6 stools in 3 colours, and the next door class had some too, we were able to borrow 2 of theirs to make 4 pairs of stools in 4 colours. This let us use them for plotting points, then translating, reflecting and rotating the shapes the points created.

At the end of the year I had my students do an evaluation, and some of their comments are below. You will quickly see that they are pretty adamant that I keep the alternative furniture and in fact some want me to get rid of the rest of the regular chairs too. The question they are answering here is, “Did you like having the flexible furniture and do you think I should change anything for next year?”

“Yes, I like having flexible furniture because it makes you more comfortable. For example the Hokki stools, you can rock on them instead of being stiff the whole day. Beach chairs, when Ms.Gartside reads aloud to us we sit comfortably instead breaking our backs just sitting on the rug.” ZK

“I loved having flexible furniture options they really helped me learn and feel comfortable. I would take all the purple chairs out and replace them with Hokki stools.” ON

“I would keep all the box chairs and Hokki stools and change the purple chairs for box chairs and Hokki stools. I also think that we should connect the two wooden tables.” AGN

“I definitely enjoy having the benefit of furniture selection. I like the Hokki chairs the most because they can compromise your twitching and fiddling without making a ruckus. I also like the beach chairs during read aloud because there is an abundance of them so everyone can have one.” OM

“I think that all of the furniture is great, I love the flexibility. I would keep everything.” SC

“Yes, one thing that was really unique to our classroom was our furniture. I really enjoyed the flexibility of the low tables, and I loved the cushiony square stools and am going to ask for one for my birthday. They make learning more customizable. I didn’t really use the Hokki chairs much though I know many people really loved them.” CS

“I really like the furniture we have in the classroom, I think we should get rid of the purple table and get another wooden table. Everything else in the classroom works really well for me!” AA

I highly recommend exploring different seating options for your classroom. Start small, with 2 or 3 stools or  1 low table, see how it goes and then work on adding more. It gave us a lot of flexibility – both in learning options and space. We could change configuration quickly and easily (and safely) – my kids became like a well-oiled machine all moving at once to either create space by moving things out of the way, or create learning areas by moving them back after meetings. The students LOVED having the choice of different tables and seats, and it gave them some control over where they worked. I had a student who liked to stand, & early in the year I said to him, “If you like to stand, just use the standing table and if you stand when we are looking at the board just make sure you aren’t in anyone’s way.” He later told me that no-one had ever given him that option, just told him to sit down. This turned out to be a significant factor for his success in our class.

Alternative Classroom Furniture pt 1

One of my epic wins this year involves furniture. Yes, you might think that sounds quite dull and uninspiring, but read on!

My classroom is very small, oddly shaped, and has no windows. It would be almost a square except there is a large rectangular section that juts out along one of the walls. Interestingly, on the outside hallway there is a door into this rectangular section but nobody seems to have a key and nobody knows what, if anything, it is for. Quite mysterious. I made a basic outline on a design site, though I don’t have accurate measurements so it’s not completely accurate, but you get the idea.

Since it is such a small room, the class size is limited to 12, though my first year I had looped with my 4th graders so we ended up with 15 in there – it was lucky we had already bonded as a community!

I started out with a large round table and an oval table, with half the kids sitting at each. Well, that severely limited the grouping options and gave us very little flexibility for the kids to work. There is a reason many social functions use round tables, and it is to encourage conversation. Well that wasn’t really working for us, as there were times I didn’t want to encourage conversation between 6 at once. When kids were working in groups of 2 or 3, it was too easy for them to be distracted by one of the other groups at the table and get sidetracked by other conversations, or butt into each others work. The large round table also meant we had only a small space for a meeting area. However we arranged ourselves, someone always had a chair leg wedged into their back, or they had to angle in ways that the chair wasn’t in their back but they then couldn’t see everyone. Not what I wanted for a class meeting. I also had 2 standing desks with swing bars that I had purchased the previous year and which had been successful.

So last summer I spent some time investigating alternative furniture options for classrooms. I found pictures online of some amazing spaces, but building a loft into my room wasn’t going to be an option! However, I did find some great furniture ideas. I have had yoga balls in my room for 2 or 3 years, and have always had kids who needed the movement that they provided. They were large and not too durable however. This year I found an alternative that gives the same effect as the yoga balls, but take up less space and will last a lot longer – Hokki stools. Originally designed to allow ice hockey players to tilt forward when putting on their ice skates, these stools have now crossed over into general use, and so they went on my list. I found some low tables with adjustable height legs, some cube stools with removable cushions, and some new versions of some beach chairs I had gained when a colleague was getting rid of them. They are actually called back jack chairs, but I have no idea why! My kids the previous year had named them beach chairs and enjoyed it so that was what we’d called them!

Then I emailed my principal and suggested a meeting, including some links to articles about classrooms that had flexible furniture options, and a google doc with my wish list and links to the sites where they could all be found. Fortunately he is very supportive and willing to let me try new things all the time, so we agreed on getting some of the tables, cube stools, back jacks (beach chairs) and 2 Hokki stools to try out.

To prepare my incoming students (and their parents) for their arrival into a classroom with decidedly different furniture in, I made an animoto video which I posted on our class site and sent to them. I also sent links to the articles about alternative classroom spaces I had found online.


Reflections on ISTE13

This year I was fortunate to be one of the teachers from my school chosen to attend ISTE 2013 in San Antonio. I first attended this conference in 2008 when it was still called NECC – also in San Antonio that year! I was glad to return this summer, having had 5 years to explore and expand my goal from NECC 2008 which was to integrate technology into the learning in my classroom in meaningful ways. I also attended ISTE11 in Philadelphia, though I paid my own way for that one!

In 2008 I remember being overwhelmed – so many sessions, such a HUGE conference center, the craziness of the exhibition hall, and so, so many people. This time I was prepared for that, and was hoping to find sessions that would re-inspire me.

For me the sessions turned out to be a bit hit and miss. A couple I attended were excellent – the presenters were passionate, they shared student work or examples that demonstrated their idea, and I came out with loads of ideas and notes to work with in the next few weeks. Some though,  I was disappointed in. Slide shows with copious text that was read to us, or presentations that did not match what the blurb in the program said.

One of the best things of the conference for me was the conversations and connections I made with people. I was able to meet a Twitter connection and fellow #5thchat regular Amy Bright – @BrightTeacher – and a few times we found each other and chatted away – like we had known each other forever, even though we had only just met face to face on Sunday.

The table sessions were the place I met lots of people and had some of the best conversations. I feel like this time they were better for me than the regular sessions. The 10-15 minute conversations about specific projects and experiences with people who were so passionate about their students (or were passionate students!) gave me much to think about, ideas for next year with my own students, and connections to continue talking with through social media.

What I regret about ISTE13 is that I didn’t spend enought time in the Blogger’s Cafe. I have realized since I came back and have been reading reflective blog posts and tweets that a lot of people in my PLN that I would have loved to meet face to face were spending more time there than in sessions. I am sure I saw some of them as I was going past heading to sessions, and now I wish I’d stopped in and said hello instead of carrying on to the timed sessions. Something to remember if I get a chance to attend ISTE again in the future.


Lessons Learned from our 9to9 Skype Marathon

So, we survived our 9to9 which actually became an 8am to 9pm Skype Marathon. Every single one of my students included it in their Top 3 experiences of the year in their end of year reflection, and we have had some really powerful conversations about community before, during and after the event. I’m thrilled to say that it was a resounding success. But, as with anything, I started thinking of what I learned and what I might do differently next time.  So here are my top  things that worked.

1. Creating the schedule on a google spreadsheet that included the kids jobs for each call, and printing it poster sized was incredibly useful.

2. Having the kids be involved in the planning.

3. Not having a job for each kid during every call worked well.

4. Creating a list of optional activities for when they didn’t have a job was good – they always knew what was available for them to be doing, and they were nearly always doing something productive. We started the list on a google doc that the kids added their ideas to, then we printed out the list and posted it on the wall.

5. Changing the jobs around so kids got opportunities to do different tasks. Also allowing flexibility for kids to swap if there was a job they felt uncomfortable doing – some weren’t comfortable being the welcome person for example.

What I might do differently:

1. Use my faculty – I found all our participating schools through Twitter, but I realized afterward that I have colleagues that have worked in different countries that might know people to connect me to. I can’t quite believe it never even occurred to me to ask the many people in our building with contacts overseas. That was dumb!

2. Maybe have two focus areas and assign schools to one of them. Or offer schools the choice though I’d want to get about half and half. That might keep interest in conversation – think some of kids found it hard to be interested all the way through. I think by the last few schools – the Aussie ones – some of the kids were done with talking about community and were more excited just to be talking to Aussie kids. They’d have liked to just do general q & a for longer!

3. Take more video – I had planned to record each call but that didn’t end up happening. We have a few video clips but not much where the kids are sharing their ideas about community and that’s what I would have liked recorded. They did a great job explaining how they have experienced our classroom community development and that is what I should have!

4. Probably other things I haven’t thought of yet.

We have had a hectic few weeks – the week getting ready for the marathon, and the marathon itself. Then I had reports to write. Then we were finishing off our newspaper, The Daily Greek, and recording, editing, and compiling our newscast, Eyewitness Greece. So I haven’t had as much time as I would like to debrief with my colleague who stayed with us for most of the day. Hopefully we’ll have some time in the next few days so I’ll add any others after that. Of course – I’m always open to suggestions, so if you have any ideas feel free to add them in the comments!

Thanks to Jenny Ashby for the inspiration, to all the schools who participated, my admin Kevin Fittinghoff for his support of my wacky ideas, and Renee McShane, who stepped in to help out as a 2nd member of faculty staying with us til 9pm!

9to9 Skype Marathon… we survived!

9:10pm 31st May. I heaved a big sigh of relief as the last student was collected by his parent. Our Skype Marathon was over and a huge success! 13 hours, 14 schools, 6 countries. 1 incredible experience! Originally going to be 9to9 – 12 hours, it became 13 hours when we found a school in South Africa who could join if we could schedule them at 8am our time. I asked my students who thought they could come in a little before 8 – EVERY SINGLE KID raised their hand! So, no problem there then!

On Wednesday before I left for the day, I checked all the things that we had prepared. The giant poster of the schedule – with all kids jobs for each school. Check. Furniture arranged as kids had decided. Check. Our Community sign up. Check. Posters made about community ready on ‘guide on the side’ table. Check. Our flip over of all the school names ready to go. Check. Cameras charged. Check. Everything I could possibly think of to check on, was all ready to go.

7:40am – first kid arrives (no, I hadn’t told them quite that early!) He helped me get a couple of computers out.

7:45am – 5 more arrive – they all got to work setting up lap tops, signing in to Twitter, checking the chart for who was doing which jobs etc.

At this point I realized that all the work we had done during Mystery Skypes this year was really going to help. They were like a well oiled machine setting up Skype, Twitter, blogging lap tops, info searching lap tops!

7:55am – All the class were there, except for 1 who it turned out was stuck in a subway issue! We were all set for our first Skype of the day, with The Rock Academy in Cape Town, South Africa!

From the very beginning of the (early) morning, my excited and eager students did a fantastic job. Some teachers who popped in and out during the day were amazed at how well they were presenting their ideas, helping each other, listening and responding carefully and thoughtfully to the comments from the other schools. I had wondered if we were prepared enough, but the conversations and activities we’d had about Community throughout the year had clearly made an impact – they knew what they were talking about, they truly believed it and they shared those ideas eloquently with each school we Skyped with.

While I had done most of the planning work prior to the event, during the day my students really took it for themselves and ran everything. Some needed some guidance a few times when they weren’t sure, but as often as not, the “guides on the side” were there to step in and help their classmates. It was very rewarding to see them help and support each other so much- demonstrating the very ideas about community that they were sharing with our participating schools around the world.

By the end of the night, as we got ready for our last Skype call, a few kids had started to fade. We had a quick tidy up of the library, clearing away all the food and drinks, computers back to the classroom, and kept only what we needed for our last call. Then there was a rousing game of Twister and they were ready for one last Skype! It turned out to be a great one to end on! A couple of early parents were able to watch the last couple of minutes and have a look at how it all worked.

We are debriefing on Monday, when together we will write a blog post for our class blog. Today we answered some tweets, worked on our social studies project which will become our MAJOR focus for the next 6 days before our Curriculum Share with families!

Will I do this again? I would say that it was an excellent experience, and I would definitely do it again. Some things I might do differently – I’m not quite sure how I would change it, but I am interested to get feedback from the kids on Monday and see what they loved, what were the challenges, and what they would change. I am sure they will give me plenty to think about!

Photos to come – when I’ve had chance to go through and find some great ones! Thank you to ALL the schools who participated! I really appreciate you responding to my calls for interest, tweets for help spreading the word, and support in working with your students so that our classes could share their ideas about Community and see how they were similar and different.

9to9 Skype Marathon!

This year my class have become Skype experts! We have done a number of Mystery Skypes (see previous posts here and here) which have been some of the most powerful learning experiences for my students! We also participated in two 24 hour Skype projects by Epsom Primary School, in Victoria, Australia. They stayed in school for 24 hour sand Skyped with as many schools as they could. My students loved participating in Epsom’s project, and were so inspired they have passionately persuaded our principal to let us organize our own Skype project. Unfortunately, we are not able to do an overnight at our school, but we have compromised and created a 12 hour version – 9am to 9pm, hence our 9to9 title. We currently have 14 schools from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Scotland. I am hoping to get a school from South America and am waiting to hear back from them. (But if you know of a school who might be interested, send them our way – @KatyGartside on twitter!)

The planning of this project has mostly been done by me, but the students have also been very involved. We have had a number of conversations about time zones, and they are starting to understand it more. They came up with a list of possible focus topics, and the final decision is that our focus will be community. Today we had a rich discussion about what we mean by community, and came up with some questions that we will refine, then send out to our participating schools in preparation for our Skype calls. Our google site is coming together – it has a google map for schools to add pins to, pages for each school to add photos, slide shows, information about themselves, a google form to collect data that we are interested in using in Maths, the schedule for the day, the planned outline of the calls.

My students are very excited to connect with the students in the other schools! They are looking forward to hearing different accents, and to finding out what they think about community and how they build community in their classes and schools. They are also excited to be staying at school until 9pm, having special snacks, and getting pizza delivered!

The day is fast approaching – 30th May – and we will spend much of next week on our main projects – finalizing our plans for the 9to9 Skype Marathon, working on our Greek newspaper, and writing scripts for our t.v. news show.

Yes. I take on too many projects at the end of the year!

Mystery Skype part 2

Mystery Skype has quickly become a favourite for my 5th grade students – and me too! I love seeing how their logical reasoning has developed, and how they are truly working collaboratively to use the answers we get to eliminate places and create new, thoughtful questions. Their questions have developed as well – they are more clearly communicating specific questions – and they continue to learn each time we Skype with another class. I am pretty hands off during the call – there to offer technical support if necessary – but for the most part my students run it themselves now.
This morning we had a 9am call planned. Band finished at 8:45, we entered the classroom at 8:50 – once I made the announcement that Mystery Skype was at 9 so we needed to get set up, every single student got going. They quickly put away their things, took out atlases, maps, computers, speakers, and moved the tables into our favoured positions. The tweeting team signed into Twitter, the “questioners and answerers” set up the speakers and signed into Skype. They were like a well-oiled machine – and at 8:58 I heard, “Okay everyone, we are making the call now, so no more New York comments!” They started the call, introduced themselves to the other teacher and then they were off. I am so proud of how efficiently they got ready, as well as how they have taken ownership of Mystery Skype and really do everything independently.

I am now thinking of setting up a Mystery Skype after school, and inviting parents to join us to participate and see what it is all about.

Mystery Skype in action

Mystery Skype #1

After our great experience with our 24 hour Skype session with the school in Australia, I was more determined than ever to set up our first Mystery Skype session. I had heard about Mystery Skype from Twitter, and had been hoping to set one up for my students last year. Unfortunately circumstances beyond my control prevented me from doing so, but this school year it was definitely going to happen!

In early December I posted a tweet looking for teachers interested in connecting for a Mystery Skype session. Very quickly, there were a number of responses! It was great – I set up a Google doc and we added our contact information, and dates and times we were available for a session. Within a week we were ready for our first try!

Our first session my students and I didn’t really know what to expect. We had prepared some possible preliminary questions, and had done some studying about our own state so we would be able to answer their questions. We had created a list of jobs, assigned everyone to a task, and decided we were just going to jump in. I made sure to let our partner teacher know that it was our first time and to be gentle with us! We decided to do the format of each class taking turns asking questions that would give a yes or no answer. Then we had to determine our next question based on the information we learned from our first question.

Our first session was great, but it was hard to find their exact location. We fairly quickly discovered they were in Illinois, but it was a challenge to find their town – and it turned out to be a town with a very small population! It was fascinating to see my students working together so well to share their reasoning about the information we had learned, and to figure out what would be the best thing to ask next to eliminate as many states or regions as possible. We had a live tweeting team posting tweets from our class account to share with our followers what we were learning. We had a class photographer taking photos of everyone doing their jobs. We had mappers and logical reasoners working together to take the information we learned about their location and what it meant in terms of narrowing down the possibilities. Everyone was very engaged and focused on their tasks.

The week after our first Mystery Skype session, we had a class meeting to reflect on how we thought it went. It became clear that the kids were eager to do it again, and that we might need to re-evaluate the jobs we had tried the first time. We also talked about some of the challenges we experienced and how we could improve for our next time.