Fostering Collaborative Classrooms

Webinar #3, 2/28/12

Presentation by Tracie Weisz as part of a webinar series by ASDN (Alaska Staff Development Network), "Using Technology to Differentiate Instruction".


Click for a list of related readings and web tools

ASDN Slideshow Presentation “Fostering Collaborative Classrooms”

The following is the text of the discussion I presented. The bold headings correlate with slides of the same title in the presentation.
You can also download this in Word format here.

*TITLE: Good afternoon – I’m Tracie Weisz and I teach for Alaska Gateway School District. I’m currently the middle school English, Social Studies and technology teacher at Tok School. Our middle school has been a 1:1 laptop school for the past 5 years, and this year our 3-8 grades went 1:1 with iPads while our high school went 1:1 with laptops. While the past few years have been spent in 1:1 classrooms, the bulk of my experience prior to that has been in classrooms with just a few computers. Most of my teaching has been at the middle and high school level, with many of my earlier years teaching in multigrade classrooms at smaller village schools. When I switched to a larger school with straight grade levels, one thing I realized right away was that there is virtually no difference in the spread of ability or readiness levels of students between the multigrade classrooms and the leveled grade classrooms. I think a benefit of multigrade classrooms is that they put you in a frame of mind to differentiate immediately. You know it’s important. Traditionally the attitude in larger schools with leveled classrooms has been more teacher-centric – “this is the curriculum for this level so that’s what I’m teaching”. The push to differentiate for those types of classrooms has come along a little later in the game. In my classroom my students do a lot of group and partner work, but it’s not necessarily something I set up or stage on purpose. In this presentation, I’ll try to give you a better idea of what collaboration in a classroom means to me, and how it goes hand in hand with differentiated instruction.

*STRATEGIES: I’ve been to a lot of trainings, read a lot of books, and have even lead some trainings in differentiated instruction. I have to be honest, when I have tried to take that academic knowledge and then transfer it to my classroom, it seems like planning, which is such an intuitive process for me, all of a sudden becomes awkward. So I had to get a different perspective on differentiated instruction. Instead of thinking of it as a series of individual strategies I had to employ, I started thinking about the bigger picture.

*LEARNING STYLES INVENTORY: There are a lot of inventory surveys out there we have been encouraged to give our students – ones that determine learning style, interest areas, engagement triggers, etc. Still, I can’t help but think this is endemic of something we constantly try to do in education – we are looking for ways to make a messy process neat – we can’t help ourselves. I’m not saying those surveys aren’t worthwhile – they can offer a lot of insight. However, I’ve taken those surveys and I’ve thought “Oh, so that’s my learning style”, “That’s my interest area”, and I’ve agreed with the results, but also could easily see that I am capable of learning other ways as well. For example, I tend to learn easily by reading, but there are some things that are at my reading level that I still have a hard time understanding by just reading them. And as far as interest, I could potentially be interested in all types of things. I think with differentiation sometimes we are trying to define something that is indefinable.

*ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL: One thing I have no doubt about however, is that when we deliver the same stuff the same way to everyone, we are missing the boat - that’s true with or without technology. About 1/3 of your class can learn it to some degree, but the rest won’t – you aren’t giving them anything to care about, to be interested in, there’s no way to engage or be creative, and some of them have a difficult time learning the way you’ve presented it.

*STANDARD MEANING: I know that when we think about differentiation we need to think about differentiating material, differentiating for learning styles, for ability, and for interest. However, I know that other things matter in the equation for successful differentiation.

*SUBTLE MEANINGS: Your relationships with your students, the culture of your classroom, even the time of day matters in how effectively you are able to reach a student and help them learn. When I think about collaboration it’s the same as in real life – it doesn’t always occur in real time. It’s not limited to set groups or times. It should be fluid. You want it to be present always. In the same way, differentiation doesn’t depend on any one specific strategy. Make opportunities for your students to own their learning process. Now I’d like to talk a little bit more about how I use collaboration in my classroom, to give you a better idea of how that leads to differentiation. Also I’d like to keep to more concrete examples when I present these kinds of ideas because I like teachers to be able to find at least a couple of good ideas they can use in class tomorrow.

*BLOGS, WIKIS, GOOGLE TOOLS: The main platforms I use in my classrooms are blogs, wikis, and Google tools. They are the perfect vehicles for working with content both for myself and my students, and they have the added benefit of allowing collaboration and differentiation to occur in a more natural fashion.

*GOOGLE TOOLS: Google tools I use with my students almost daily include Google Docs - that includes presentations, spreadsheets, and forms, Gmail, and Google Chat. Google Docs is one of those tools that does something that lots of other tools can do, but it does it so easily – and for writing in class or working in small groups it just couldn’t be easier. Kids can write in real time, add pictures and links, have access to their group’s work even when a partner is gone, work on it outside of school when they are not together, and I can be as much a part of that process as I deem necessary. I can check in on a group’s progress and give timely feedback.

*COLLABORATIVE WRITING: An example of something I love to do with Google Docs is collaborative writing exercises. Two kids will take something they want to write about and split it up – one writes the introduction, one writes the middle, but they have to come up with a conclusion together. This is so great because to me, and I think to many people, writing is not naturally an exercise in isolation – it is a collaborative activity – but not necessarily one that fits a particular format. As adults, sharing our writing is something we naturally look to do, and this kind of exercise is a great way for kids to get more time to do that in a meaningful way, and to learn first hand why it’s important.

*GOOGLE FORMS: Google Forms have been a great way for me to differentiate instruction – I can develop quick assessments for individual students and just email it to them, or post it on a class wiki. My students like to use it too, for taking polls and gathering information from their friends, or anyone in the world for that matter. The response shows up in a handy spreadsheet format, which makes it easy to scan.

*GOOGLE CHAT: Another great Google tool that has evolved in ways I never suspected has been Google Chat. I have students who chat with me after class, in the evenings, and when I am away. They feel very comfortable communicating this way and since they know I am receptive to this I hear from them far more than I ordinarily would. Once in awhile I will get a kid using email to me to ask for help, but usually it’s via chat. I also like how my students use chat when they are collaborating on something together like Google Presentations, or a Google Doc. These are great sidebar conversations that really keep things moving along. Since my kids text and IM so much on social networking sites, this is such a natural environment for them that they really take off with it.

*MY CLASS BLOG: Blogs and Wikis are something I use to present class content, and I have my students use blogs as platform for showing their learning, playing a little, and displaying their creations. These are platforms that lend themselves to a lot of different web tools, and also are very collaborative in nature.
I’ve been talking a lot in general terms about using technology for collaboration and differentiation, but to keep this on a practical level, I’ll try to give you an idea what that looks like for me.
I’ll use an example to very generally describe my typical process that I use when planning a lesson or unit of study for my classes – throughout this process, see if you can identify how many instances I can include collaboration and differentiation into my students’ learning experiences without it being forced.

*PLANNING BACKWARDS: I’m going to plan a unit on the geography of Canada for my 8th graders. When it is all said and done, I’d like them to have an enduring understanding about how immigration has affected Canada and diversified its culture. I’d also like them to have an overall perspective of the physical size of Canada, and some of the many things we in the U.S. have in common with Canada.

*HAVING FUN = ENGAGEMENT: Let me be the first to say that engagement alone is not enough – I can be very engaged in a mahjong game on my iPhone, but there’s not much learning taking place. But if we know we have meaningful learning goals, adding incentive to engage just makes it better. I may introduce a unit like the Canada geography one using a great online web tool like Jeopardy Labs. I show students a quick clip of a Jeopardy program so they know how the show works. I set the parameters for our game – the physical geography of Canada. I set up a list of links for resources on our class wiki, and divide the students up into teams so that they can begin to construct their Jeopardy geography questions. I require the entire team to approve each question and make sure it fits the Jeopardy format. We set up the room using the projector and some piped in Jeopardy music and let the fun begin. It’s an icebreaker to get familiar with some basic facts, and it’s always fun – it’s one of those classes that the kids talk about for the rest of the day and hate to miss.

*POST VARIED LINKS: As the Canada geography unit moves on, I’ll use the class wiki to post links to varied resources about Canada’s immigration history, policies, problems and successes. I’ll make sure to use a variety of resources that are at varied reading levels, and from different types of sources, such as slide shows, articles, interviews, t.v. news clips, and blog entries written by Canadian immigrants with varying perspectives. I also always let my students know that in addition to my posted resources, they are free to search out their own resources. My students also add resource links to the wiki as we go. Now keep in mind that I’m skipping over a lot of detail in terms of the varied activities and assignments we do along the way.

*MOCK INTERVIEW: One of the culminating projects of this unit would be the students working in pairs to do a mock interview that highlights some of the varying perspectives or controversies over Canada’s immigration. We use online tools like CuePrompter to give these segments a more polished feel. The students post these videos onto their blogs.

*TOOLS TO ENHANCE: As a further step, I might use an online connection site like ePals to find another class of students in Canada to review and comment on the videos on my students’ blogs, or I might just post a tweet to any of my Canadian educator followers to check them out and comment if they have a chance. I’ve found that educators in the Twitter community tend to be a generous bunch.

I haven’t gone into a lot of detail in describing my above unit, but - were you able to see collaboration? Were you able to see differentiation?

There are a lot of little things I typically do on a regular basis in my classroom that offer opportunities for collaboration and differentiation. Now I’d like to be sure everyone has a chance to find some things they can use in class tomorrow.

*GOOGLE DOCS FEEDBACK: I require students to type any documents on Google Docs and share them with me. I require students working in groups to open a Google Doc, share it with each other and share it with me. This makes feedback from me constant and easy – and it’s more of a conversation than just a one-time deal. And yes, I am one of those horrible teachers who use a red pen – for practical reasons – because red is easy to see. So on Google Docs I include my comments and highlight things in red. For those of you who don’t like red, Google Docs offers a lot of other warm and fuzzy colors!

*WIKI SCRAPBOOK: When I want to introduce a new web tool I give my students a place to play with them – they build “scrapbook” pages on their own wikis, and they can post new “fun” things there, and can post on their friends’ scrapbook wikis as well – it’s a great opportunity just to play around and have fun with some of the tools, and to see how versatile and creative they can be. Scrapbooks are kind of like their sandbox where they can test things out. The tools that are the most versatile are the ones they keep coming back to.

*STUDENTS CHOOSE: My students build up a “supply” of web tools early in the year and then we gradually add more. That way when they do projects in any content area, I can say things like “Use a slideshow to show this idea”, and they get to choose the slideshow tool they like best. When you introduce them to a variety of tools, they become discerning customers pretty quickly – they all have their preferences. In any lesson, activity or unit you do with students, I still believe that a crucial component of differentiation is choice – whenever you can offer it to any degree, you are already taking a big step toward helping your students be better able to meet their own learning needs.

*SEE AND HEAR THINGS DIFFERENTLY: I try to offer various ways for my students to access some of our materials in our texts through the use of my class blogs and wikis. Sometimes I re-type sections from our grade level text at a more friendly reading level, sometimes I will video myself discussing one of the sections and post it, sometimes I set it up with an audio reader like Odiogo, and sometimes I’ll find a good short YouTube clip that gets at the idea in a creative way and post that on the class wiki. I’m also fortunate that in working with the Mac laptops and iPads it’s very easy to set up accessibility preferences so that students have access to text-to-speech. The iPads also allow us to take advantage of great speech to text apps like Dragon Dictation.

*FLEXIBLE AND VARIED GROUPS: I try to not force group work – I try to keep collaboration as natural and fluid as possible. I usually always offer the option of working alone. I’ve never yet had any student choose that option every time. Depending on what we’re doing, sometimes I let students self-select groups, once in awhile I select groups, and sometimes I scaffold or jigsaw groups so that everyone works with everyone at some point.

*MAKE USE OF VIDEO: I make use of video constantly – that could be me posting a “how to” video for them to access as a resource, YouTube resources, a short video of me or an expert discussing a concept. I also have my students create all sorts of videos – to re-enact their interpretations of scenes from literature or history, their own “how-to” videos, or as a form of digital storytelling. I really think that students now, more than ever, need to understand how to express an idea well through visual media. They also need to understand how to be discerning consumers of visual media. My students can almost always incorporate video as an option when exploring or expressing their interpretation and understanding of an idea. This year I cobbled together some old bookcases and got an instructional grant for a green screen kit from Amazon that cost about 150 bucks. I constructed a little studio.

*HOLLYWOOD: We call this area of the room “Hollywood” and it is in use almost daily.

I should mention that there are a few of my colleagues who think I am a techie, and the reason I am able to offer such diverse learning opportunities to my students is simply because I really know my technology. They say they simply couldn’t find the time to do all of this.

*TOO MUCH: I’ll explain to you my response to these concerns – which are valid…
First of all, I didn’t do all of this at once. Sure I was interested in the possibilities technology offered for me to be better able to meet the needs of my students, but I didn’t take a crash course, and I didn’t start throwing all this stuff around immediately. The first thing I did was establish myself in an online learning community – I made my own PLC. I did this in several ways, and although I’m not saying this is the only way or the right way, it worked for me.

*MY PLC – BLOGGING: First I started blogging. As I learned a new tool I would try it out – my rallying cry has always been “ready, fire, aim” – it’s an attitude that reminds me that it’s ok if it doesn’t go as planned – try to learn something from it. I would try it out in my class in several ways and then I’d blog about it. It was a reflective process initially, and then I decided to turn it into a way to start a dialogue with other teachers going through the same process.

*MY PLC – TWITTER: I got a twitter account and started following a few good educators in the ed tech field. I’d tweet questions and post links to my blog posts.

*MY PLC – SOCIAL BOOKMARKING: I set up a Delicious account for social bookmarking. When someone I was following on Twitter would post a link to a tool they recommended, I’d immediately check it out, then bookmark it. Through Delicious, I was able to find lots of related resources through tagging. Most of the educators I followed on Twitter also wrote ed tech blogs – I started reading them. Right now I’m going to suggest as strongly as I can that if you don’t already, you get a Delicious or a Diigo account, and start bookmarking and even organizing lists.

*MY PLC – RSS: I set up an RSS reader on Google so I could keep track of recent blog posts I wanted to read. Believe me, if you are already using web tools as a time saver, one of the first things you start having more time for is reading and getting ideas from your PLC. I started reading the comments and then started joining in on some of the conversations.

*MY PLC – JOIN CONVERSATION: This lead me to more great educators who were using technology in innovative ways, and my PLC grew from there. You don’t have to be a Twitter star or a super blogger in order to get some great connections and useful leads. I kept trying new things in my classroom – I kept a few guidelines for myself when deciding what to use.

*STUDENTS THINK, COLLABORATE, CREATE: The tool had to be something my students could use to help them think, collaborate, or create.

*TOOLS REDUCE WORK: The tool shouldn’t create more work for me – the best ones would replace something that was more onerous or time consuming.

*TOOLS PERSONALIZE: The tool should help me differentiate my instruction, or help my students to personalize their learning.

*I would say that today, using technology for collaboration and differentiation has changed everything. I am a far more creative teacher than I used to be. I take more risks and encourage my students to do the same.

  • I would also say that in terms of workload, I spend less time on actual physical prep – much of my work can be done anywhere.

  • For my students, their learning is more personal, and more creative.

  • Communication between students, between students and me, and between parents and me is easier, clearer, far more frequent and far more positive.

  • Technology has made my classes and my teaching more transparent – parents and students know what we are doing all the time.

  • For students who have to be out of class sometimes, keeping up with what we are doing is easy.

  • It has opened up a lot of new doors for assessment. My students have a myriad of ways to show me what they know and what they can do, and I can give timely and meaningful feedback.

  • One of the best things though, is that I know that besides the content of my courses, my students are learning a lot of other skills and ways of interacting with each other and the wider world that will continue to serve them well. The technology tools they are using help them to be critical thinkers and better learners.

  • So I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground in a short presentation – one of the real challenges of this kind of presentation for me is to try to get this idea of something that I do kind of intuitively into something more concrete. Although I don’t sit down with a list of strategies to plan with, I think at this point just experience has taught me the kinds of things that really feel right in my classroom. We all have to start somewhere, and I think knowing about strategies and building good relationships with your students and having a real awareness of when things are right for them is the goal for a teacher who wants their kids to learn as well as they can. As someone once said, changing the way we teach is a lot easier than changing the way students learn.