One of my first tips for any teacher wishing to authentically embed technology into their classroom experience is always to start small. It’s easier to build on a simple, achievable idea, than it is to trim down an all-consuming tech monstrosity.

So, with that in mind, one of our amazing grade three teachers, Rebecca (who is also a member of our SUNY CoETaIL cohort), began a small, achievable project for the FOSS Science unit Structures of Life with her students in early April. Rebecca’s goals were to:

  • have her students experience tracking and sharing their developing understanding about their hands-on science experiments in a way that would be easy to manage and very student focused.
  • visually document the stages of growth in the life cycle of a seed.
  • utilize student “class experts” to ensure that the project was completed as independently as possible by the students.

In order to meet these goals, and provide a very simple start, we decided to use VoiceThread. Because this was the first time Rebecca had done a project like this, she wanted to make sure that the technology portion of the project was manageable. So, we decided to create class experts who would be responsible for different aspects of the project, which would allow Rebecca to focus on the science, instead of the technology.

Here’s what we did:

  • First, we selected a group of 4 (volunteer) student photographers to be responsible for documenting the daily changes in their seeds, over a period of 7 – 10 days (to capture the full life cycle). These students would take pictures of their own seeds, as well as help other students use the cameras to photograph their seeds. Once all of the pictures for the day were taken, the camera experts were responsible for uploading all of the pictures onto Rebecca’s computer.
  • When all of the pictures were taken, Rebecca and I chose which ones to put on the class VoiceThread. When had all of the pictures in a VT, we then showed the class and had them choose which ones they wanted to describe in partners. They spent some time working with their partners to write a script for their selected picture.
  • Once they were ready to record, I worked with 2 groups at a time to record their scripts. Each student had their own identity in Rebecca’s VoiceThread account with a hand-drawn self-portrait scanned and uploaded to VT as their avatar.
  • After the students completed their recordings, I shared the completed VT with my PLN via Twitter to show the students how many people would be enjoying their work.
  • Finally, we had a class discussion about what we’d done well and what could be improved. Among the things the students noticed were the need to speak loudly and clearly, to sound professional, and how drawing and labeling the photo really helped the viewer understand the topic. They were amazed and thrilled to see comments from so many other teachers around the world, thanks to you!

Here’s the completed VoiceThread:

After we reflected with the students, Rebecca and I realized that students learn best from seeing their own work (as opposed to samples) after having experienced the entire process from beginning to end. They are then able to focus on sharing their learning, instead of the ins and outs of the technology tools. So, we decided to repeat the basic process of the project with the next part of the unit, studying crayfish.

We also wanted to add more opportunity for student input, so this time around, we asked the class to choose which pictures to include in the VoiceThread, to select which picture they would describe and give it a title, and to agree on a title for the entire VT.

Here is our second completed VoiceThread:

As you can see, the students applied all of the ideas they generated during the first reflection: improved clarity and volume in their speaking, and increased use of the drawing tool to label the photographs.

Ideally, if we had more time in the school year, we would have repeated this process once more, this time with each student (or partnership) completing their very own VT from beginning to end.

Teacher Feedback

After the success of these two projects, I asked Rebecca to share her experiences in our SpeedGeeking faculty meeting. Here’s what she had to say to our 4 prompts:

What was the impact on student learning?

  • The most valuable impact was the gain I saw in students’ use of specific language to describe their observations.
  • Observing students’ initial attempts to tell what was happening in the picture was a formative assessment.
  • When the words “stuff” and “thing” were banned and students had to generate the description using the scientific vocabulary taught in the FOSS investigation, it became clear where they were lacking understanding.  This gave me the opportunity to clarify or re-teach points.
  • When students later wrote an assessment response about what was happening with a sprouting seed, I could see more exact language and explanations.
  • Having to express themselves orally and fluently was also a learning experience for most students.

What was easy?

  • Once Kim met with the classroom “photo experts” and taught them a few pointers about using the camera and how to download the pictures to iPhoto, the picture taking was easy.  Now the students are teaching each other and helping each other become better photographers.
  • Kim orchestrated the recording for the voice thread, but this seemed easy since the students had worked out their scripts in advance.
  • Uploading the photos and individual student identification portraits took time but was also easy to do.

What was challenging?

  • Making detailed observations and clearly using the correct words in the descriptions was challenging for many students.
  • Careful planning was needed to keep students on task on recording days.

Steps to complete the project:

  1. Students viewed a sample of a voice thread.  (Kim)
  2. Photo/Camera experts (4 students) were taught camera basics: photo tips and downloading pictures. (Kim)
  3. Student online identity pictures (self-portraits from the beginning of the year) were scanned and uploaded to voice thread. (Khun Kob, Rebecca, Kim)
  4. Students photographed the sprouting process while making their daily observations. (Students)
  5. Photos were selected for this project.  (Rebecca)
  6. Students picked a picture to describe and worked with a partner to write a script describing the picture.  (Students)
  7. Students recorded scripts for their respective pictures.  (Students & Kim)
  8. Students viewed and critiqued the final project.

Total classroom time: 4-5 class periods (not counting the picture taking during seed observations). While recording was being done outside the class with Kim (2 periods), other class work could continue in the classroom.

Final Thoughts

It would have been easy to develop a large-scale project using a variety of tools for this unit (I’m seeing a wiki, with the life cycle of a seed mapped out, VTs, pictures, and videos embedded on each page, links to external sources and global partners collaborating), but starting small enabled both Rebecca and her class to enjoy the project, see the potential of the technology, and build the confidence to try it again only a few weeks later. Establishing a successful and positive first experience with technology is a surefire way to encourage teachers, students and parents to keep building those skills and to continue using new tools to enhance learning.

All too often, teachers think that they should use a tool only once and then move on to something else. On the contrary, I have found that using the same tool a number of times not only helps deepen student understanding of both the power and limitations of that specific tool, but it also helps them focus on their learning instead of just the technology. The first time students use a tool, they are focused on all of the bells and whistles, the second time they’re more focused on sharing or presenting their learning using the new tools, the third time they’re “old pros” at the tool and can focus entirely on the information they’re sharing.

What do you think? What are the pro’s and con’s of using the same tool more than once (if it’s the right tool for the task)?