Friday, March 29, 2013

Collaborative Writing with Google Sites

My last post was about Google Sites, and since then I've had lots of great feedback from folks about the different ways to leverage sites with students.

Meanwhile, Karen Blumberg's idea of a book review site has continued to percolate. As it happens, a few weeks ago I serendipitously connected with a fellow 5th Grade English teacher here in the city, and we started emailing about potential collaborative writing projects for our students. As he and I discussed our curriculum looking for overlapping assignments or novels, he mentioned a book review project he does with his students every year. This seems like the perfect way to introduce a new project into my Writers' Workshop curriculum while also teaching digital citizenship and collaborative writing skills. We still have plenty of details to hammer out, but the basic concept of students sharing book reviews and commentary about novels via a Google Site seems like an exciting idea.

Curious to know if any others have tried something similar, or if there are other great ways to introduce a collaborative writing project? Please share your wisdom in the comments!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Using Google Sites in the Classroom

As a Google Certified Teacher, I regularly use Google Apps for Education in my classroom, present on these tools at professional conferences, and sing their praises to colleagues, students and parents. I love Drive, YouTube, Custom Search, Search Filters and Chrome Extensions, and rely on them in both my personal and professional life. But Google Sites, Google's free website builder, has remained somewhat of a mystery to me.

I was first introduced to Sites at the Google Teacher Academy, and since then I have seen several colleagues use the tool successfully: Fellow GCT Brent Catlett has been working on an idea to connect educators from all over the world using Google + Hangouts, and he just recently shared the link to his new project, built on a Google Site: Another GCT buddy, JR Ginex-Orinion, has created personal websites for friends, professional sites, and sites for his students. In preparation for an upcoming NYSAIS workshop, I asked our Robotics teacher, Erik Nauman to come and share with attendees the way his students use Sites to build their own portfolios. He's had great success with his 7th Graders, and looking at what they've produced made me all the more eager to get on the Google Sites bandwagon. 

Having already committed to exploring Twitter, Drive and YouTube with my students this school year, I wasn't really looking for a new piece to add to the 2012-2013 curriculum. However, as we get closer to June I've started to think about the 2013-2014 school year, and Google Sites seems to be a natural tool to explore. A few weeks ago, when I attended a session at the NY/NJ Google Summit led by Karen Blumberg, her mention of Sites stood out to me. She shared a book review site that students contributed to as part of a class project, and I was immediately intrigued. My 5th Grade English students do a ton of writing throughout the year, and I've experimented with a shared Google Doc to record book recommendations, but a Google Site devoted to student written book reviews seems like a great way to combine various elements of our class curriculum and personal passions, all while exploring a new technology tool. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Writing Historical Fiction

At the start of January my students began their unit on historical fiction, first reading The Breadwinner by Ellis and then The Mzungu Boy by Mwangi. Their reading list also included several stellar historical fiction picture books as well as a few non-fiction resources that provided students with historical and geographical context for Afghanistan and Kenya, the respective settings of these two novels. Of course, as they read, they wrote; short journal entries and dialogues in the voices of the protagonists, personal Writer's Notebook entries inspired by the plight of certain characters, and opinion pieces about the texts and the choices author's made while writing. Last week we embarked on the culminating project for this unit - each of my 47 students is composing their own short historical fiction piece. I required them to set their story in either Afghanistan (1990-2005) or Kenya (1950-1965), as these were the historical periods they had studied, but otherwise left details of plot and character development to the budding authors.

Today I conferenced with a student who, in a mere three pages of writing, had already crafted a harrowing story of a young Afghan man who has chosen to join the Taliban depsite his family's protests. She depicts him patrolling a Kabul market place and viciously attacking a five year old girl who dares to sing as she walks along a road with her father. As we discussed her creative choices I gently mentioned to my student that I thought it might be less horrific if he punished a teenager rather than such a young child. She looked at me incredulously and replied, "But that's the whole point. The Taliban is cruel. It's supposed to be emotional." Though I initially felt a bit concerned that I had exposed my students to such upsetting truths about the world, I have come to feel quite proud of this writer's choices (and indeed, the choices of my many students who have written about remorseful Talibs, rebelling Kenyan villagers and children of war and violence who, unlike the adults around them, are willing to overlook differences and treat each other humanely).

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Can We Teach Students To Be Curious?

Today my Division Head emailed our faculty a short article titled: Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning. The article summarizes some of the main points shared Diana Laufenberg,  a former Science Leadership Academy teacher, at her recent SXSWEdu session. Laufenberg's wisdom serves as an excellent reminder to even the most open-minded and progressive educators to take a step back and let our students do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to choosing what they want to learn. Her guiding principle, that students no longer have to come to school in order to get information, resonated with me as I reflected on the past week in English 5, where my students have been busy writing short historical fiction pieces.  My students can easily Google any fact they care to learn, so the work they do with me and with each other in our classroom must be more than simply passing information back and forth - it must be three-dimensional, purposeful, personal.