Monday, May 11, 2015

First Graders Can Conduct Research Too!

When I was in first grade and had computer class, we spent time playing games on our Apple II-E computers;  games such as Space Invaders, Monopoly, and my favorite, Mickey's Space Adventure.  Of course, our sessions were fun, but there was no carryover to what we were learning in our other classes.  Fortunately, times have changed.  Instead of students visiting the computer room, devices are used in their own classrooms so technology skills can be integrated in their learning to redefine instruction.  One of the strands that is taught is research.  Ordinarily, I think of research being taught in middle school.  However, this past year, I had the pleasure of working with the first grade teachers and students in my school to learn how to conduct research on a specific topic.

In a first grade classroom, the skills that are important to teach students include:
  • What is research?
  • Why do people research?
  • Using a website to learn about a topic.
  • Finding information about a topic on a website.
  • Communicating findings orally or in writing.
As I mentioned above, never in a million years would I expect first graders to know how to research topic using books or the Internet.  One class is researching the seven continents and the other two classes are researching animals.  At first, I had no idea how to help these teachers and students conduct research and report their findings.  The teachers grouped the students and each member of the group will be researching a subtopic of the main topic.  In order to be successful at this endeavor, I needed to accomplish the following tasks:
  • Find a tool that would enable the groups to collaborate and communicate with each other, as well as work independently
  • Find a tool that is child friendly and safe online
  • Find a tool that is cloud based so that students can use on any device and therefore they are not limited to using the same device each session
  • Find a tool that can incorporate child friendly websites for conducting research.
After conducting much research myself, I decided to use SMART amp.  Winner of recent awards including 2015 Bett Awards, 2014 eSchool News Top Education Products,  and a finalist for the 2015 SIIA Education CODIE Awards, SMART amp was designed with the purpose to be used on any device, anywhere, at any time.  I am fortunate to be a SMART amp Champ and therefore I received advanced training from SMART Technologies enabling me to mentor other teachers in using this software with their students.  

Now that I knew what tool we would use to conduct the research project, it was time to train both the teachers and their students in using SMART amp so they would be comfortable in using the software independently.  Instead of the students visiting the computer lab, I bring devices - either Chromebooks or iPads into the classrooms.  This way, the students are using the devices as a part of their learning experience in their own classroom setting.  With all tools, practice makes perfect, so it did take some time for everyone to learn how to use the software.  Once the students learned how to use the software, they were very comfortable using it and enjoyed using it to learn.  In addition, I teach the students while the teachers are in the classroom.  This way, I can collaborate with the classroom teachers while modeling it for the students.  Our students need to learn how to collaborate with each other and the best ways to teach them are by modeling the skills as well as providing them with opportunities through which they can do so.

Now that the students are broken up into their respective groups, it's time for them to conduct their research.  Each group will be responsible for conducting research and communicating their data on a continent or an animal.  Within each group, each member will be responsible for specific subtopics of their continent or animal.  For instance, if a group is researching the Continent of North America, each member in the group will be responsible for researching specific attributes about North America.  The students will use a combination of books and a child friendly research website, Ducksters to research their information.  Since SMART amp enables web content to be integrated and embedded within the workspace, the students do not need to browse the web externally.  They will report their findings within their very own SMART amp workspace.  They will collaborate with each other on their findings.  At the end of the research project, they will present their findings and what they have learned to the class.  

Below are examples of what the students will be researching for the topic of continents.  

I am so amazed by what the first grade teachers and students are doing.  Through collaborating, communicating, creating, and thinking critically, we are preparing our students for a better world.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Using Educational Technology to Improve the School-Home Learning Connection While Strengthening Parental Involvement

Parent engagement in the school . . . is defined as parents and school staff working together to support and improve the learning and development of students. Research has shown that the education benefits of parent engagement have: better behavior, better school attendance, higher academic performance, high school completion rates and enhanced social skills.  We know parents are busy; many homes now have two full-time working parents instead of just one.  Other homes just have one parent who might be working full time.  As educators, we need to think of creative ways to engage parents in their students' education.  Fortunately, the use of Educational Technology can most definitely assist with that, making the job somewhat easier.  Therefore, many schools have adopted a LMS (Learning Management Systems) such as Google Classroom, Edmodo, or Haiku, to help keep the lines of communication open between teachers, students, and parents.


At the same time, educators are using technology not only to engage their students, but to enhance and extend student learning.  There are great things happening in your classroom, but do your students' parents know about it?  You probably send a newsletter, an email, or post a blog on your school's website, but do you ever give your student's parents a chance to experience what and how your class is learning at home?

Introducing SMART amp Winner of recent awards including 2015 Bett Awards, 2014 eSchool News Top Education Products,  and a finalist for the 2015 SIIA Education CODIE Awards, SMART amp was designed with the purpose to be used on any device, anywhere, at any time.  Because students can learn anywhere on just about any device that has an Internet connection, learning can extend to their homes affording parents the ability to be actively involved with their children's learning.  Parents will be able to see what their children are doing with SMART amp and how they are using it to learn in ways that they could not do beforehand.  When using SMART amp, the possibilities are infinite as the learning extends beyond the walls of the classroom as doors open up to the outside world.  The concepts that students are learning are presented in a workspace that is easy to navigate.  Whether it's collaborating with peers, teachers, or researching information, students will have a richer, more meaningful experience on their devices. In addition, there is an assessment component that teachers can add into their workspaces; parents can receive automatic feedback on whether their children have demonstrated mastery of the material in the workspace.

Because SMART amp is Google Apps for Education (GAFE) based, parents simply need to login to SMART amp with their children's GAFE accounts and then they will be able to access their children's workspaces.  They will be amazed at all of the features that are available as the workspace is like one big canvas that can be filled with their children's creativity.  One of the many features is the ability to insert images into the workspace.  They do not need to be concerned with their children searching for images in the workspace since SMART has set Microsoft Bing's Safe Search to conduct the search - and this filtering will be applied wherever the students use SMART amp. However, it is still advisable that parents supervise their (younger) children using the Internet on devices and they should not be left unattended.  There is also a YouTube search feature which can be used to search for videos and embed them into the workspace.  It is important for parents to recognize that YouTube should be set with safety on and/or they should use another filter to block inappropriate content.  There are many web filters available, such as K9 Web Protection which is even free.

With that mind, we know how important it is for our students to learn digital literacy skills in school to be proper digital citizens.  SMART amp helps them to accomplish this.  Parents need to remember that they themselves are "digital immigrants," while their children are "digital natives as they are growing up in a digital, media-saturated world and require a media-rich learning environment to hold their attention." (Marc Prensky, 2001)  In addition, parents will learn that by using SMART amp, the students are being prepared for the future. They are learning how to collaborate with each other as well as work independently, which are crucial in today's world.

A SMART amp workspace with activities that children can use to learn at home.

And SMART amp just keeps getting better and better.....during the past year, significant improvements have been made to the software in the areas of technical aspects as well as user ability.  The SMART Technologies Team is in constant touch with SMART Exemplary Educators (SEEs) to inquire how to continue improving the product.  After all, at SMART Technologies, education comes first!

After educators provide parents with the opportunity of using SMART amp at home with their children,  they can ask parents to visit classrooms in action to observe the class using SMART amp as a learning tool.  Parents can also serve as school volunteers for the library or lunchroom, or as classroom aides, which affords them with a greater amount of "hands-on" time with their children's learning.  Further, when a class is conducting a PBL (Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning) unit, educators can inspire collaboration by inviting a parent who is an expert in that field to come and speak to the class either face to face or virtually.

Many parents at are on their school's Executive Board and therefore they are involved in decisions related to the school's operating budget.  Parents want to do what is best for their children.  They also want to know where their tuition dollars - or tax dollars - are going.  If educators would like parents to help them in soliciting funds for Educational Technology, then they need to make sure that the parents know about what they are using as learning tools in their classroom and how it benefits the students.