Friday, September 27, 2013

Project Based Learning: A Road Map for Success in Early Years

For a number of years, I have been an enthusiastic proponent of project-based learning in early years. Our collaborative project Little Hands, Big World (with colleague Leah Obach) has been an ongoing series of multidisciplinary, student-led learning experiences--many with an environmental/sustainability focus. So what have I learned that could make your journey into project-based learning smoother?
It can't be forced. The real-life problem or issue needs to come from the students themselves. I’ve tried to bring my ideas to the students because I see terrific learning opportunities, but both the students and I have felt a lack of enthusiasm and reliance on the teacher’s lead. The best projects have arisen from an issue that is very real to the students, easily observed, and directly impacting their lives. Our Hopping to Help project began with a student bringing a frog for show and tell!
 Be willing to step back and let students do the heavy lifting. It is so tempting to do the work yourself—after all, you can do it ten times more quickly than your students, right? But the most authentic learning comes from students determining and executing the important steps of the project. When we are immersed in a project, we begin every day with a class meeting and generate/modify our to-do list. Referred to throughout the day, it sets an intense focus as all tasks are essential and laden with rich learning! Occasionally the students and I decide that a task is best completed by an adult but they are part of that decision.
 Engagement and enthusiasm run high. Managing it can be challenging. In kindergarten, learners are in different places with self-regulation. When students are truly immersed in a project and taking ownership for its success, their energy can be boundless. Channeling it requires careful management, clear expectations, redirection, and reinforcement. Students can quickly be brought back on task when they are reminded that they have a very real job to complete that is crucial to the project’s success.

Make a difference while building important skills. Project-based learning requires risk-taking. Things won’t go perfectly, the learning will be messy, and your classroom will be even messier. However, the benefits are numerous and often immeasurable. The synergy, sense of purpose, and making a real difference while meeting learning outcomes and developing 21st century skills can be addicting-- you and your students will be planning your next project as the previous one draws to a close!

*This post was orginally published on Microsoft Partners in Learning Hot Topics blog. View the original post here .

Thursday, September 19, 2013

From First Steps to Digital Footprints: Developing Digital Citizenship in Our Youngest Learners

 Most children enter kindergarten as technology users, but their knowledge of how to use it safely and appropriately varies as widely as their abilities to print their names and tie their shoes. As their first teachers, it is unquestioningly our duty to develop digital citizenship alongside scissor skills and sharing.
Collaborative, project-based learning experiences provide many authentic opportunities for students to acquire and practice digital citizenship skills that will see them safely into adulthood as they begin to develop and manage their first digital footprints. In Manitoba, we have a Literacy with ICT Developmental Continuum that fosters critical and creative thinking skills as students learn to use ICT safely and responsibly. How does this actually look in kindergarten?

We can use technology to share our learning with others and learn from others. Skype in the Classroom connected us with a classroom in New Jersey when we were learning about frogs. For more information, check out these blog posts: Frogs     Skype in Kindergarten

We can self-regulate as we use technology. Modeling and guided practice goes into growing self-regulating learners in kindergarten. We practice how to behave in front of the web cam, posing thoughtful questions that no one has asked yet, and thinking about what we know and want to learn.

We can use technology safely and responsibly. We used Twitter in kindergarten to challenge other classrooms and share results in our litterless lunch competitions. Students gained experience in what information is appropriate and safe to share as well as password security.

We need permission to use someone else’s music, images, and ideas. We frequently make movies to share and celebrate our learning. We understand that we can’t use popular songs off the radio in our soundtrack. Tools such as Songsmith are a copyright-free way to generate our own music.

These simple understandings provide a strong foundation for digital citizenship. Regardless of the students’ age, it’s never too early or late to begin. There’s no doubt that digital citizenship is the 21st century version of “plays well with others” and our students’ future success will depend on it.

*Originally written for Partners in Learning Network Hot Topics, September 18, 2013. View the original post here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fresh, Shiny, and New

So year-end craziness in May and June combined with two months of summer fun has been hard on my blog. But it's a brand new school year and I'm excited to share what's been happening in my classroom. I'm also planning to post on some exciting project-based learning that occurred in June in my K room, leaving me far too busy to document it at the time.

This is my sixth year of teaching kindergarten, and every year I refine my start up procedures. The first week is under my belt, and I was really pleased with how smoothly everything went. I am teaching a combined junior and senior kindergarten program again, and I have 15 four year-olds and only 5 returning five year-olds. With 75% of my students and their parents being new to the program and classroom, it was more important than ever to explain things clearly and make sure everyone understood the procedures and routines in my classroom.

It only makes sense that your first contact with a family should be a positive one. At the beginning of August, I mail out a welcome letter for the child, a kindergarten handbook for the family, and a school supply list. I also add new parents to our classroom Facebook page, and give last year's families a couple of weeks' notice that I will be removing them from the page.

This year, my welcome letter was printed on pink paper and contained a handful of pink feathers. Parents reported that it was a big hit with their children!
 Tickled Pink welcome letter
Kindergarten Handbook
My kindergarten handbook has been a work in progress for years--it's been added to and changed ever since I taught Grades 1 and 2. I conference with all families the day before kindergarten begins, and the first thing we do is review the handbook together. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to make sure everyone understands rules, procedures, and expectations, and I can answer any questions.

Parent/Child First Day Booklet
When families drop in for their conference, they bring their child and his/her school supplies. They complete this booklet together, touring different areas of the room. Then they sit down, enjoy a snack, and meet with me. First we go through the school supplies, making sure that the child's name is written on every item. Then the child puts them away in his/her cubby, with me assisting as needed.

Conference Checklist
This conference checklist guides our discussion. I review every point on the checklist with parents, then give them the checklist to take home.

Remind 101
This year, I asked all parents to bring their mobile phones to the pre-kindergarten conference. I added everyone to Remind 101, an app that allows me to text everyone at once. I think it's going to be great for quickly getting the word out and reminding parents of classroom happenings.

I always take the traditional first day of school pictures of my kindergarten kids. Last year, they each held up a sign saying, "First day of junior/senior kindergarten 2012". This year, I decided to take the pictures with my iPad and use Overgram to add text. The parents and I were thrilled with the results. Thanks to the families who agreed to let me share these! Have a look....

Who doesn't think that teaching kindergarten is the best job in the world? One look at those adorable faces, so full of promise, confirms it for me. Here's to another great school year ahead!