Last year Heather and I worked through a process of researching and then reading a book with our grade seven and eight classes that was a new way of doing things. Building our community and then moving the kids closer together, we had our students use a number of platforms (wordpress blogs, google docs, chatrooms, online sticky notes, etc) to conduct a lot of research in online spaces.
While we definitely did a lot of planning ahead of time, when the rubber actually hit the road, things often changed and we found ourselves inventing new practices on the fly; taking the time to reflect on things afterwards, we grew a pedagogy of students working in community, on multiple platforms, to accomplish a variety of goals.
I was reminded about the power of what we did and the changes we had to make personally when I had a student teacher in my room for a few classes. She was in while the students in our class were deep into writing the Field Guide to Molching that formed a pivotal part of our work with Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief. At that time, Heather and I were often spending 50+ minutes each day in dead silent classrooms while 10+ groups of students each on their own google doc furiously researched and wrote. We found ourselves jumping in between chatrooms, supporting students in their learning, asking critical questions, editing along side of students and providing additional information when needed. The speed at which we worked was simply something I took for granted. But when a student teacher came for a few days to see what we were doing out of interest, I had to coach her along and get her working at a much higher speed then she was used to. It made me realize that we were doing things differently.
I have been reminded about that over the last few days. Once again, Heather and I have teamed up to begin reading a book between our classes. Eventually, we are going to be taking turns reading over skype, while the kids write in a chatroom and then spend some time in reflection at the end of each session. But before then, the kids need to do some background research and initial learning. The book we are reading is Half Brother, written by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. A great book (based on a true story) about a family in the 1970s who attempt to raise a chimpanzee as if it were a human child. We wanted our students to look at such things as sign language, animal research, the theory of evolution and other topics as background work.
So we’ve set them to work.
Groups of four or five students each have a google document as a planning space. Each group has students from Heather’s school and students from mine. They are collaborating on planning, doing their research, and then heading towards the completion of a presentation which they will deliver to both classes.
But we’ve been amazed the last few days at what we are finding between our groups of students. Heather and I both have classes that have students in grade seven and eight in them. This means that our grade eights were with us last year as we worked through The Book Thief, while our sevens are rookies to this kind of work. We were amazed and impressed at the maturity and experience that many of our eights brought to this task. They quickly jumped in, organized themselves and the grade sevens, asked questions freely in chatrooms and set up research sub titles and guiding questions on their documents. From the intense experience they were through last year, they know what to do and the process they need to work through in order to be effective learners in online spaces.
I am interested to see where the grade eights progress to as they gain more experience working this way. I am also wondering how the guidance that the grade eight students provide to the grade sevens will help them to get up to speed with this type of learning. Last year we were all rookies building and learning as we went along. What happens when mentors come in to play?
As one of my grade eight students told me when I spoke to them about this after today’s session, “That’s right Mr. Fisher, we’ve got skillz.”