Sunday, October 25, 2015

Music - A Key to Learning!

Mastery and transfer is, or should be, the goal of all learning. Teachers, after all, do not spend time planning and teaching only for students to simply learn, pass a test, and disregard information. At least one would hope that is not the case! For learning to move to mastery and transfer, however, students must be able to quickly and fluently recall and apply that which they have learned. I believe that one key to learning concepts and information for instant recall is music!

I am not a singer. Not that I don't enjoy singing, but others, perhaps, would not enjoy listening to me sing! That, however, did not keep music from my classroom. One quite valuable resource for using music with my students was an album called All Around Us by singer, songwriter, and my friend,  John Farrell.

The album contains ready to use songwriting tracks called "Sing, Write, & Learn". Through the use of the tracks your students can create a song for any learning! There is even a track explaining how to use them and tracks with examples created by the artist and children in a classroom. The entire album can be purchased and downloaded (or purchased in CD form) for $9. You can even purchase it as a gift and have it delivered via email to a friend.

Here is one example created by my second graders, telling facts about owls. Sometime after creating the song, we were on an outdoor ed field trip when a naturalist asked my kids what they knew about owls. They began sharing facts and it didn't take long for me to realize they were sharing them in the order they were recorded on their song! The track is called "What's So Great About...?" and can be purchased individually for only $1 if you would like to give this idea a try:

The process is really quite simple (more so now even, than when I used these tracks with my students! There is also a tutorial on the actual album called "Introduction to Songwriting Tracks");
  • Choose a learning concept or topic or question needing an answer. That becomes the title and theme of the song.
  • Students use research skills to gather facts. (There is the standard!)
  • Students apply writing skills to form well written factual statements. (Another standard!)
  • Working together, the class decides which statements to include in the song and in which order they should appear. Timing becomes important and the class will need to plan order and presentation to fit the musical track. (Collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving!)
  • Create the chorus.
  • The entire class rehearses the chorus, while individual students practice reading their lines with fluency and timing.
  • Enjoy the song!
  • If you would like to make it permanent, download and record the musical track to your digital device. One example would be the use of iMovie which allows multiple audio tracks along with a video track where you can add images. 
  • Practice singing the song along with the track until you have the timing down. Record, add images, and share! Posting to Youtube allows your class to share their work with the world!
Sharing with the world may seem a bit lofty as a goal, but the following video was also created by my second graders and they did just that! After watching a global online event by TakingITGlobal, about the orangutans in Borneo, my students wanted to learn more. We invited our superintendent, who had worked in an International School in Borneo, to speak to the class. They researched in books and online to learn about the issues. One site they found particularly interesting and helpful was Orangutan Outreach. As they learned, they felt the need to take action. It was one of John Farrell's songwriting tracks that became their strategy. The kids created the following video to post for the world (This track is called "Welcome to the World"):

They had contacted Orangutan Outreach for permission to use images from their site, and sent a link to the video when it was posted to Youtube. Orangutan Outreach posted their video on the website and gave the kids a free orangutan adoption so they could follow the story of a young orangutan. We also posted the video on Twitter and our website. The kids received feedback from around the world. This project is still a favorite memory of the kids who experienced it. I believe music was the key.

Another track on the album is called "I Wonder What We'd See?" and would work perfectly for any habitat or geographical study. Although there are examples and ideas for the use of the tracks, they are limited only by your students' imaginations and creativity. Music is one of the best ways to connect learning to memory, achieving mastery and transfer. And, perhaps most important of all, it makes learning fun! Please don't leave the fun out of teaching and school! 
There are many resources for adding music into your classroom. If you have not used the resources created by John Farrell, you will not regret taking time to explore. His sites include not only links to download the songs, but also lyrics and sheet music. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Taking on a local environmental challenge...

Early in my teaching career, a local naturalist told me something on a second grade field trip that stuck with me through the rest of my teaching years. She said many classrooms teach about faraway places like the rainforest or polar regions, but many forget to emphasize the local habitats and environment. Through an understanding of their own backyard, children build the concepts and background knowledge required to really attain global awareness and understand global issues. There is, perhaps, no better way for students to learn than to actually experience learning in the real world around them. Authentic projects tied to the world they see everyday are invaluable, especially for young children. Add in experts as teachers beyond the typical classroom and the learning multiplies as children begin to understand point of view, critical thinking, problem solving, and the need for collaboration. Local environmental problems present valuable opportunities for students to not only learn, but to engage in solving real world problems. In 2010, my second graders took on a local problem with great success! Their work was the result of two timely events. The first was a growing debate in our community over how to manage the growing population of deer living in our city limits. The deer were causing destruction to yards and the local people were asking for something to be done about the problem. The second event was a live online webcast from Shout Learning, a collaboration between the Smithsonian, Microsoft, and TakingITglobal. My students joined the webcast called "Forests and Deer: Requirements for Conservation" hosted by Dr. Bill McShea, wildlife ecologist for the Smithsonian. Although the webcast addressed the negative impact of too many deer in the eastern forests, as the children listened to the speaker online, they began to make connections to what was happening in our town. From the connections came questions and a project was born. Could they actually develop a solution for our community?

The answer to the problem could not be found in a textbook and I, as their teacher, could not supply the information they needed. Instead, we turned to other resources. Experts representing the two sides of the issue were invited to class. The mayor spoke about community concerns and decisions. A Division of Wildlife officer spoke to the class about conservation and protection of wildlife. In addition, the kids researched the problem and discovered that our small town problem was a growing issue in towns across the country. The class used Twitter to seek help from other locations. Using the hashtag #comments4kids, we posted links to our blog video requests for help. Answers came from as far away as England offering suggestions. 

Ultimately, the class arrived at a solution that might help our community. They published their advice in a brochure that was distributed throughout our town. We posted the project on both the Shout Learning website and the ePals website. As a result, the children's work was featured in a Smithsonian in Your Classroom publication. You can access and download the publication by clicking on the link. 


The publication contains step by step suggestions for recreating a similar project with your students. The process always begins, however, with identifying an environmental problem in your own backyard. What is the problem? What are the causes? What are possible solutions? 
  • Research
  • Organize your thoughts
  • Turn to the experts
  • Turn to the community
  • Listen to the children and help them see that this world belongs to them!

Shout Learning is no longer active, but you can still watch the archived webcasts. There are many websites that provide information about environmental issues for students. TakingITglobal and Design for Change are two possibilities. The Smithsonian is about to unveil its new learning resource called the Smithsonian Learning Lab as well. The possibilities are endless. Engage your students in learning with a real world problem! You never know what might happen!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Monster Project: Collaborative Descriptive Writing!

Photo by Michelle Balleck - Craig Daily Press

October is the perfect month to inspire children to practice descriptive writing! Describing jack o'lanterns, Halloween costumes, or nocturnal animals were all favorite assignments for my first or second graders. The all-time favorite, however, was always The Monster Project

This writing assignment requires partners for collaboration. We used international pen pal partners, but the project can be just as easily and effectively completed with partners in the next classroom or a school across town. The steps are simple:
  • Prior to the project it is helpful, depending on the age of the children, to review geometric shapes, directional words, prepositions, and adjectives.
  • Each child draws a monster. 
  • Next, the child writes a detailed description of their monster, explaining how to draw it.
  • The descriptions only (no pictures) are given to another student. Possible partners might be another child in the class, students from another class in your school, students from another school in town, or distant pen pal partners.
  • The student receiving the description, recreates the monster.
  • The recreated monster drawing is returned to the original student for comparison to their original drawing.
My class exchanged their descriptions with pen pal friends in other countries. We used a wiki for posting the project. Each class had a page on which they posted their descriptions. The receiving class uploaded their redrawn monsters. The originating class then upload the original drawings for all to see. The examples below were from an exchange between our class in Colorado and a class in Beirut, Lebanon:

Such a simple idea to get kids writing with an authentic audience!

Here are links to some of our monster project results from years past. We, at times, had partners who did not speak or write the same language. Wikispaces allowed the students to write in their own language and translate the postings of their friends:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Fall Poetry Writing With Kinect-tions!


 Poetry writing is a standard for most grade levels, but what happens when you combine it with an outdoor experience, an art project, and avatar creation? Kids engage, excite, and create! Don't be scared away by the technology... there are several layers to this lesson idea. You can omit or change the technology to fit your available tools!    

One of my favorite times of the year, fall offers the opportunity for children to use their senses to observe change. Sensory writing, like poetry, is best when it is based on actual experiences. I liked to take my second graders outside on the perfect day. (Some spontaneity is required to make this happen as weather and nature do not always follow a lesson plan book!) The first frost, the appearance of color in the surrounding trees, the angry cloud morning, worms on the playground escaping the rain in the grass, or any other notable outdoor event make for fabulous descriptive vocabulary development! With pencils and notebooks in hand, we took our learning out to the playground to gather ideas and words for our poetry. Our school was fortunate to have an arboretum where the kids could observe a variety of trees and shrubs, but any outdoor setting will do! Children rarely stand silently still on a playground. Asking them to do so almost always leads to big ah-ha's! A bit of silence with eyes closed allows children to notice sounds and smells they may not otherwise notice. Still bodies feel the wind or chill on exposed skin. Eyes take in great detail when bodies and voices are quiet. After each experience, we took time to share what we noticed and jot down some ideas in our notebooks, stretching to move beyond simple words like wind and cold, to more specific descriptive words. Brainstorming together helps build everyone's vocabulary.  

In addition to descriptive sensory words, we practiced the use of poetic devices. In second grade, we worked with metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. After learning and practicing in the classroom, we moved outdoors to try out the devices when describing nature. Working with partners, the kids took time to sit quietly, touch, and experience nature while writing poetic phrases in their notebooks. At the end of the time, we gathered in a circle on the grass for sharing. Stretching them a bit further, I would point to something like a bird flying by, or a seed on a bush and ask them to think of an example for each poetic device. They were as delighted with themselves as I was when they realized how beautiful and descriptive their words could become!

Back in the classroom, poetry writing was ignited as they could not wait to paint a picture with their words! Although it often feels like there is never enough time at school, it is critically important to allow enough time for children to brainstorm and build thoughts and ideas. The time spent outdoors practicing, led to engagement within the class. I would never leave that part out!
Here are some samples of the resulting second grade fall poetry:

It is almost impossible for children to spend time outdoors in the fall without collecting leaves! In first grade, we had a scavenger hunt for specific colors and types of leaves. While gathering details for our poems in second grade, we also gathered colorful artifacts to bring back to the classroom. Once poems were written, we used leaves to make pictures based on the marvelous book, Look What I Did With A Leaf! by Morteza E. Sohi: 
I frequently used art as an incentive for writing. When students looked forward to artistic creation, they willingly worked hard on their written creations as well. This project was a favorite! I have to admit, that over the years, I found a way to make this much easier! Although the children collected bags of colorful leaves, we did not use the actual leaves for our artwork. That inevitably led to dry crumbly pictures that would not last. Instead, we scanned the leaves on a color copier and printed out pages of paper leaves for the children to use in their artwork. The results were fabulous and long lasting: 
The lesson could easily end right there! Adding one more element, however, takes this lesson over the top for kids and ensures they remember the learning for a long time! Using an Xbox 360 Kinect in my classroom, they children were able to record themselves reading their own poetry as an avatar! I had a Kinect system permanently in my classroom (I will share other uses in future blog posts!), but we also had one in our school that could be easily moved from class to class. If your children have one at home, it can also be brought in for a project as well.

Avatar Kinect is found on Xbox Live online. Click on the links to find the download for the game. As always, it is important to remember that you, the teacher, do not have to know how to do this. I will never forget struggling to teach my second graders how to create the avatars while they listened patiently. Just before the moment of frustration overcame me, I realized my huge error! Turning to the children, I asked if anyone knew how to do it. Hands shot in the air and I, chuckling to myself, quickly turned that part over to the kids. They helped each other with the game and recording of the poems. I turned my attention to children who needed help with their writing. We do not need to be the experts at technology! The kids need to be the experts!

The final result? Here is the work my second graders completed that delightful fall: